I can recognize a sensation when I see it. Sarina Bowen’s tag blew up this summer with positive reviews for her series, The Ivy Years, and after more minor prodding on Facebook, I decided to change the status on when to read these from “Later” to “Now.”
All four stories feature couples who are in some capacity part of the
Fake Harvard Harkness varsity hockey universe. Each book excels at portraying characters who behave as real people would, in situations both mundane and extraordinary. These are not romances that are contrived under “only in Hollywood” misunderstandings or twists of fate; these are some of the most genuine characters I’ve ever encountered in the New Adult genre and, truthfully, if pressed, I’m not even sure I could name any superiors. It’s partly the authenticity of the characters and partly a good instinct for romance and romantic moments that makes these books so successful: it’s much more easy to imagine people falling in love when they actually have expressed qualities the other admires, than it is to imagine Barbie and Ken dolls finding superlative happiness with each other considering all of their depth of character and tapered parts.
The Year We Fell Down centers around Corey Callaghan and Adam Hartley, who live across the hall from each other in the handicapped-accessible dorm. Prior to attending Harkness, Corey had an accident that resulted in a spinal cord injury, and she can’t walk unassisted. Adam broke his leg in two places, and is in a full leg cast and on crutches. Both had expected to start on the Harkness men’s and women’s hockey teams, but that is no longer an option for either. Due to the temporary nature of his disability, Hartley’s half of the story is more about status and expectations — his family is decidedly non-wealthy, so being “chosen” and deemed good enough by his uber-wealthy current girlfriend is a huge boon to the ego. Unfortunately, his girlfriend is high-maintenance and rather apathetic toward their relationship in practice. When he strikes up a friendship with Corey, he experiences what it’s like to actually share a part of your soul with someone, but it takes him some time to realize how he really feels, and to get over the social cache he feels he might lose if he breaks up with his girlfriend. It sounds shallow, and it is, but being in his head makes it much more sympathetic than my telling it second-hand. Despite his candid admission that he appreciates the perks of having a rich, eye-candy girlfriend, he genuinely treats her well and wants to be worthy of her in every way he can. It’s only when he realizes that what he thought she contributed to their relationship isn’t really all that important (and really, she contributes nothing other than a pretty face) that he realizes his attention is better spent elsewhere.
For her part, Corey has a lot to process, and her emotional arc — both in the development of her relationship to Hartley and in her own acceptance of her situation — is the meat of the book. Hockey had been her life until her injury, and to have lost that AND basic mobility on top of it is a major blow. She’s frustrated as all hell, but she is fortunate to meet Hartley (and her roommate Dana) right off the bat, both of whom are empathetic and helpful, and not in an overbearing way that Corey finds suffocating. Corey suffers a bit from typical “Doesn’t know she’s beautiful,” but it’s exacerbated by the (sadly) real truth that being in a wheelchair makes her invisible to most men as a potential love interest or sexual partner. Indeed, the emotional intimacy she forges with Hartley while he is still sexually committed to his girlfriend reinforces this in her mind; she’s not interested in “stealing” Hartley, but she is convinced nonetheless that even if he were single, he wouldn’t be interested.
This is, all together, a very genuine and thoughtful story that is also, importantly, very romantic. I thought the pacing was spot on, and I loved the emotional honesty and practicality displayed by the two of them. For some reason, I only gave it four stars on Goodreads, but I may have just been being bratty because it probably deserves higher. I can’t recall anything I didn’t like about it.
The Year We Hid Away could have been one of the most excessively dramatic contemporaries I’ve ever read, which should rightfully send me screaming in the other direction because melodrama is so not my thing. But again, Bowen is some kind of magician, because this book totally worked. Scarlet is starting Harkness with major baggage, so much that she has changed her name and abandoned her previous life, including her passion for hockey. She’s got a pretty darn good reason for doing this, which is that her father was just indicted on several charges of child abuse and molestation, and her family is all over the national news. Her foil is Bridger, who appears in the first book as everyone’s favorite genial “party boy,” and has always been mostly responsible for his younger sister Lucy, since his mother is out of the picture with a nasty drug habit. This year, it’s gotten worse, and to get Lucy out of the house, he’s caring for her out of his dorm room and essentially taking on 100% of the parenting. This means he has zero time for any of his favorite extracurriculars, including hockey and sex, but when he meets Scarlet first in class and then in the dining hall, he’s immediately attracted to her and can’t help but want to get to know her better. Between them, everything clicks and almost falls into place. Their chemistry is natural to the point of being almost understated, but the type of comfortable security they provide each other is exactly what they both need. His schedule and her secret let to some misunderstandings and occasional subterfuge, but thankfully when certain things come to light, Bowen doesn’t decide to suddenly make two easygoing people drama queens to service the story — she keeps them understanding and supportive of each other. Not only does this keep their characterization intact, but it also helps the book to not collapse under its own weight. Both of these characters have enough shit going on as individuals that to make their relationship a relentless hardship as well would make this impossible to enjoy and render their success as a couple unbelievable.
The Understatement of the Year is actually my first proper m/m romance. The m/m erotica I’ve tried does nothing for me (not a squicky thing — m/m/f works just fine; I think I just like having at least one woman in the scene as a relateable conduit. I have no idea what prostate stimulation feels like, you know?) so I never really went out of my way to pick up a romance. Fortunately, as I was in Bowen’s capable hands, the transition was seamless. Without being dismissive of the characters’ important experiences as gay men — closeted and out — the book managed to avoid being all flashy and After School Special about its focus. The inclusion of several different gay men and the range of respectfully sketched characterizations helped avoid any stereotyping, and the love on the page between the two men was no less carefully considered than any heterosexual pairing. This should be obvious, but when real life heterosexual friends of LGBTQ folk helpfully chirp “You should meet my friend! He’s gay too!” it’s doubly important that romances distinguish their LGBTQ characters as people and establish why they’d want to actually date each other, besides their shared orientation. My heart broke so many times for Rikker reading this: he’s new to Harkness and the hockey team after having been kicked off the team at his old college when he was outed by an “incriminating” photo he didn’t know was taken. When he joins the team, he’s re-united with Graham, his best friend in middle school and his first love. The two had done their share of “experimenting,” but it was more than that for both of them, even if neither could articulate what that meant, growing up in their religious, conservative town. Everything ended poorly when they were discovered and Rikker was severely beaten, while Graham escaped. Graham, terrified and ashamed, never visited Rikker in the hospital and never called, and Rikker was sent away to live with his grandmother. So, when Rikker walks in the door to the locker room, Graham can’t process his feelings. Guilt, shame, anger, and flames of his old love are all there, and it takes both of them a considerable amount of time to come to terms with their shared past and potential future.
The Shameless Hour focuses on Bella, who was introduced in the prior book. A shameless flirt and unabashed lover of sex, Bella endures constant teasing — from benign to derisive — about her healthy sexual appetite and proud promiscuity. All of that changes when a fraternity pulls a merciless, cruel, and misogynistic prank on her, causing her to retreat into her shell and barely emerge from her dorm room. She experiences, all at once, all of the shame she never felt before when people derided her enjoyment of casual sex. The only person who seems to be able to pull her out of her funk is Rafe, her downstairs neighbor, who is the perfect gentleman in basically every way, except that he appears to Bella to still have a weird hangup about one time when they hooked up. What Bella doesn’t know, because Rafe hadn’t told her, was that he was a virgin until that night, and he had been saving himself for his girlfriend who turned out to be cheating on him. Rafe doesn’t think any less of Bella for her proclivities, but no-strings-attached sex just isn’t for him, so he has to compartmentalize that encounter away to avoid getting too attached to Bella, since she’s clear about not being interested in a commitment. Of all of the books, this one comes the closest to the trope of the two of them needing to sit down and talk it out because of Bella misunderstanding Rafe’s misgivings. But it still works here, because the subplot of Bella overcoming what happened to her takes precedence, and Rafe proves himself to her every step of the way by being a flawless support system. So by the time Bella actually finds out that their encounter had a completely different meaning for Rafe than it did for her, he’s built up enough goodwill that it makes it easier for her to trust him when he explains his feelings.
I loved The Shameless Hour for its thorough takedown of slut shaming, for Rafe and Bella who are lovely people and who I am desperately sad are fictional because I want to know both of them, and for Bella’s roommate Lianne, who will be the subject of the next book and who seems fascinating (a famous movie franchise actress who is also a hacker? Uh, okay! I’m in!)
I also loved, across the series, the exploration of different ways that young adults explore their sexuality and, as an extension, themselves. While this is an inevitable aspect of New Adult romance, the multifaceted approach taken by this series goes deeper than most. From Corey’s desire to be seen as a sexual person while being terrified that her injury might actually have affected her ability to feel sexual pleasure, to people’s different attitudes toward their own virginity, to actual sexual orientation, Bowen covers a lot of bases. To do so accurately and respectfully is a testament to her skill and thoughtfulness. I’m looking forward to the continuation of this series and her future work.