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Heidi Hart

By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general. 

A Mixed (Knitting) Bag

Friends Without Benefits - Penny Reid

I have always been drawn to the idea of knitting -- of having something to do with my hands while sitting still, of creating something beautiful and useful from a few balls of yarn, of being able to show my love to friends and family with hand-made gifts from the heart -- but in practice, I am a knitting failure. I've tried to learn several times, with several teachers, but I haven't the skill, patience, or fine motor coordination to accomplish anything but a few lumpy, holey scarves made with big, chunky yarn. 

 

As with knitting, I liked this book perhaps better in theory than in execution. This story (the second in Penny Reid's Knitting in the City series; I haven't read the first) combines some of my favorite tropes: second chance romance, friends-to-lovers (or enemies-to-lovers, depending upon how you look at it), the unrequited secret crush. Nico and Elizabeth grew up together. As children, Nico loved Elizabeth, but showed it by teasing and tormenting her cruelly (as boys will), so that she thought he hated her. In high school, Elizabeth fell in love with Nico's best friend, who then died of cancer. Nico comforted Elizabeth in her grief, she slept with him once, freaked out, and ran away. When the novel begins, they haven't seen each other for eleven years, since that fateful night when they were teenagers. 

 

Now Nico is a famous comedian with his own Comedy Central-style show, and Elizabeth is finishing her last year of residency as a medical doctor. Their paths cross again when Nico's niece comes under Elizabeth's care. Two things become immediately clear: 1) Nico is still very much in love with Elizabeth, and 2) Elizabeth has not dealt with her grief, and consequently she is very much afraid to love anyone. For most of the book, the dilemma seems quite hopeless. 

 

Parts of this story worked very well:

 

I loved Nico's honesty. So often, romance novels manufacture dramatic conflict by making a huge issue of the hero's resistance to falling in love and his inability to express his feelings once they develop. Friends Without Benefits uses that tired trope, too, but gender-flips it: Elizabeth is the one who, having lost her mother and her first love as a child, isn't willing to surrender her heart. Nico, in a refreshing contrast both to Elizabeth's fear and to the stereotypically emotionally-stunted romance heroes of the genre, is totally in touch with his feelings and unapologetically honest about them. He tells Elizabeth how he feels and what he wants, he owns his mistakes and apologizes for them, and he doesn't compromise his self-respect while he waits for Elizabeth to come to terms with her own emotions. Nico is much, much more emotionally mature than Elizabeth, and I really liked that about him. 

 

I loved Elizabeth's Knitting Group. Every Tuesday night, Elizabeth gets together with a bunch of girlfriends to knit, gossip, and drink wine. This is the thread that binds the series together: presumably, by the end, all of the knitters will have had their own love stories. In the midst of my present social isolation, living in rural America far from all of my best school mates, raising toddlers whose bedtime routine starts at 6:45 pm, I long for this sort of social Girl Time even more than I long for romance and hot sex (my wife and I have that, occassionally, even with small kids). In my case, I'd prefer a book group to a knitting group, but for a group of friends like that, I'd make another stab at learning to purl. Elizabeth's friends are fun, funny, supportive, and honest, and they love her too much to let her persist in her deluded and emotionally-stunted relationship patterns. 

 

Parts of this story didn't work for me:

 

Elizabeth is a hot mess. Even gender-flipped, the I-don't-wanna-fall-in-love-because-REASONS trope is tired and tiresome. Much as I may sympathize with Elizabeth's childhood losses and her impulse to guard her heart, her emotional immaturity made her pretty tough to like for the first two-thirds of this book. She's not just guarded: she's condescending (example: when Nico tells her he loves her, she doesn't believe him; she says he thinks he loves her, as if she's in a better position to know his heart and mind than he is) and sometimes even cruel (example: when she feels her resolve to resist Nico slipping, she makes arrangements to sleep with another man whom she doesn't even like, intending to use him to innoculate herself against Nico's love -- which is a pretty crappy thing to do to both men). 

 

When Elizabeth finally starts to get her shit together, Nico flakes out. At about 70% through the story, just as things are starting to wrap up toward the Happy Ever After, something happens in a the plot which makes Elizabeth want to be closer to Nico but sends him fleeing back to his show in New York. Honestly, the fight that preceeds his departure seems contrived, as if Ms. Reid's plot got away from her and the HEA showed up before she'd wrapped up the story, so she made her characters have a big blow up just to buy a little time. Nico had been so honest and mature to that point, and Elizabeth had been such a basketcase, and all of a sudden their roles were reversed and neither was behaving true-to-character. It was all a set-up to a Grand Gesture Grand Finale, but I didn't like it: I'd have preferred more emotional honesty and less dramatic fireworks. 

 

Poor Editing. Finally, and this is a frequent complaint about indie-published books, I was bothered by typos and grammatical errors (including an egregious misuse of "literally," which ranks right up with "irregardless" as my one of my top grammar pet peeves) throughout the story. Ms. Reid also has a tendency toward redundancy, using long chains of adjectives when one or two would suffice, and sometimes expressing the same sentiment (sometimes in the exact same phrasing) several times in the same scene. As I understand it, these first two books have been fairly well-received and have brought Ms. Reid success beyond that enjoyed by most indie-published authors. I hope that she'll consider using some of the proceeds of that success to pay for professional editing and proofreading of her next books -- with a little help, I think her writing could probably make the leap from 'Good' to 'Excellent'. 

 

Bottom line: Ms. Reid's writing is funny and insightful, and I'll probably read on in the series in the hopes that I'll like future stories better when Elizabeth-the-hot-mess doesn't have such a central role.