I am a stubborn cuss and resisted the lure of Clayborn’s much-lauded first romance, Beginner’s Luck. As my Twitter handle says, “always late to the game”! I confess I’m here to sing praises. I won’t even do it very well because I was up till the wee hours polishing off Luck Of the Draw, despite having a full work day with several important, need-to-be-alert meetings slotted in it. But here I am and here we are and I’m tethered to the cheering bandwagon.
There’s another reason I wasn’t keen on Clayborn’s first, or second for that matter, other than the romance cheering section; more pernicious to me was the alternating first-person narration: heroine/hero, heroine/hero, like that. When one of my favourite romance writers, Ruthie Knox, went first-person-rogue on me, I was annoyed, but I followed. (I’ve only ever fully forgiven first-person narration in my favourite novel of all time, Jane Eyre.) So, between the squee and the self-conscious “I’s“, Clayborn had to work hard to thwart my side-eye. But foil it she did, by keeping the action on its toes; the characters, compelling and lovable; and by a perfect balance of humour and angst (my favourite narrative tone/mood). What I couldn’t fault her for? The premise was all kinds of tropish catnip.
Zoe Ferris won the lottery and quit her high-powered lawyer’s career. She wants to plan the trip of a life-time, but can’t bring herself to do it. Deep down, Zoe doesn’t believe she deserves her good fortune. She is plagued by the people she hurt when she was high-powering her way to success: the intern cowed; the barrista condescended to. Zoe suffered from the smart person’s hubris of being smarter than anyone else in the room and suffering fools without empathy. Zoe is particularly haunted by her memories of the O’Learys, father, mother, and brother, who brought a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company who marketed the drug that was supposed to help their son/brother beat an opioid addition. It killed him and Zoe was the attorney who ensured the settlement was circumspect, with no admission of guilt on the drug company’s part.
To put her guilt to rest, Zoe shows up at the O’Learys’ house to apologize and encounters, instead of two grieving, elderly people, six feet plus of grumpy EMT, with a chip on his shoulder the size of a redwood, in the form of Aiden O’Leary, deceased Anthony’s twin. Aiden treats Zoe with unforgiving contempt and takes advantage of her “twelve-step” making-amends self-redemption by asking her to act as his fake fiancée, to help him pitch to buy a childhood camp for the purpose of turning it into a Wellness/Recovery from addiction centre. Thus begin Zoe and Aiden’s volatile week-end trips to Stanton Valley Camp, complete with frantic chatting on Zoe’s part and grunts from Aiden, with skin-crawling bugs and amenities-not, all the while Aiden and Zoe reluctantly joined in guilt-appeasement and hot attraction.
A first-person narrated romance novel can only be as good as the protagonists’ voices. And the only way I’ll keep reading is if the voices are not accompanied by endless internal rumination, but advance external action, especially in the form of zippy dialogue. Because of Clayborn’s juggling internal-external narrative act, I cared about Zoe and Aiden. I cared about them individually and I really loved them together. Clayborn managed to make them funny and vulnerable. She joined them in their internal struggle with guilt and with the good old-fashioned edict to live an examined life. It was refreshing and intellectually invigorating to read a full-fledged HOT romance between two sexy, serious people who grapple with ethics. Clayborn shows us how they grow, how they heal, and how, in the process of personal growth, they fall poignantly in love. Did I love everything about Luck Of the Draw? Pretty much. I can’t help but think Aiden’s voice is a bit forced, a bit “is this really how a dude thinks?” The novel could’ve used a heavier editing hand, maybe I’d have shaved about, oh, 15% of the ruminations. But then, just as Zoe and Aiden are getting close, Clayborn hits me with this Zoe-thought phrase, “This is so different, this weekend, this affection, this – tenderness.” And I’m gushy, admiring all over again.
Along with Lucy Parker and Alisha Rai, Clayborn is writing this fresh, irreverent to the genre yet loving it all the same, romance. Miss Austen would be proud. With her, I say Luck Of the Draw is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Kate Clayborn’s Luck Of the Draw is published by Lyrical Shine, Kensington Books. It was released on April 24th and I would zip right on over to my favourite e-vendor and get myself a copy. I received an e-ARC from Lyrical Shine, Kensington Books, via Netgalley.