By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
The "Cereal Killer" bit was funny, and that's the only reason I'm giving this two stars instead of one.
I first read this about 10-15 years ago, when I was first starting to read romance. I remembered it fondly, and it's stayed on my "keeper" shelf through more moves than I can count. Rereading it now, though, it's abundantly clear that I'm a much more discriminating reader, and much more in tune with sexual politics than I used to be, because I really didn't like it this time around.
My major issue with it is the premise. Dr. Jane Darlington is a wicked smart physicist with an IQ in the stratosphere. She's determined to have a baby, but she wants to find a stupid father because she doesn't want her kid to be freakishly smart like she was. (This isn't the way genetics work, and a genius scientist like Jane ought to know that.) She doesn't want to use a sperm bank because she thinks all sperm donors are medical students, so they'd be too smart. (I used a sperm bank to conceive my sons, and donors, like people, come in all sorts of varieties.) Her solution? She poses as a prostitute, sabotages a condom, and sleeps with Cal Bonner, the quarterback of the Chicago Stars. (She heard him on the news, and assumed--based on his downhome southern drawl and his profession--that he must be a moron.)
Taking away a person's reproductive autonomy is morally reprehensible. It's a violation akin to rape. In SEP's lexicon, it's "bunny boiler" crazy and wrong. In my professional life as a domestic violence prosecutor, I see cases where abusive men sabotage condoms or hide contraceptive pills in order to impregnate their girlfriends, the goal being to keep them tied to the abuser and financially dependant upon him, though in books and movies, it's always women who get pregnant on purpose, usually to "trap" a man into marriage. It doesn't matter whether women or men do it more often (it's appalling either way), but the perception that women do it contributes to the widespread rape-culture belief that women are untrustworthy in sexual matters such as whether we're using contraceptives when we say we are, whether we're faithful in relationships when we say we are, whether our lovers can trust us when we tell them they're the father of our babies, and whether (and these are the big ones) we really mean it when we say no and whether we're truthful when we claim we've been raped.
Anyway, it takes two tries (where Jane's lies are increasingly desperate and the sex is bad in a way that SEP intends to be comic but isn't) for her to succeed in getting pregnant. Jane knows her behavior is reprehensible, but she somehow rationalizes that it's okay as long as she doesn't let herself enjoy the sex. ("If she permitted herself to derive even a moment's pleasure from his caress, she would be no better than the prostitute she was impersonating. This had to be a sacrifice, or she could never live with herself." p. 50.)
As an aside, given that Jane is a genius scientist, I might have been more okay with the secret-baby premise if SEP had written her as truly lacking in social skills, perhaps on the autism spectrum, a la Jennifer Ashley's The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. It wouldn't have made it right, but if Jane had some sort of clinical lack of empathy, I might have been able to write off her behavior as misguided rather than bunny-boiler evil.
Needless to say, when Cal finds out about the pregnancy, he is righteously furious and bent on revenge. He hates Jane, but he's determined to preserve his rights with regard to the baby, so he marries her with the intention of divorcing her as soon as the baby is born. (I would have demanded proof of the pregnancy from a doctor before marrying such a crazy liar, but that's just me.) When the press breaks the story (because he's a hotshot sports God), he forces Jane to move with him to Salvation, North Carolina, his hometown.
For a few months, they live together in a state of open warfare that reminded me of The War of the Roses, a movie I hated. Jane gets Cal's goat with a prank involving Lucky Charms which is, frankly, inspired, but it's about the only bright spot -- otherwise, their conduct is meanspirited and bloodthirsty. Nevertheless, Cal's moral code requires him to be faithful even in the bonds of a fake marriage, and Jane is a weak woman, so they have plenty of sex even as they snarl and humiliate each other.
Apart from the cereal prank, the only other thing I enjoyed about this novel was the subplot involving the conflict in Cal's parents' marriage. They've been together 37 years but are reeling from a family tragedy, and their history is rich and compelling and about a million times more interesting than the games Cal and Jane are playing.
Jane and Cal obviously have a lot of issues to work through before they can have a happy ending (and to tell the truth, I'm just as skeptical and as squicked out by the very notion of a HEA in these circumstances as I am by those Old School romances where the heroine falls in love with the hero after he rapes her), and I won't spoil the plot by going into detail except to say that, in the end, Cal is the one who does The Grovel, which sucks because Jane's transgression is so much more offensive and unforgiveable.
Funny how a reader's feelings about a book can change so drastically over time, isn't it?