As a queer romance reader, I’ve been really frustrated with myself for the past few years. For some reason, I just don’t enjoy queer romance novels as much as I do ‘straight’ ones. Obviously, there are exceptions, but often, I feel like a lot of these romances are written in unintentionally heteronormative registers, which dulls the chemistry and the tension that makes a book sing. A significant exception to this, I have found, is the ‘Sports Romance’ genre [given my familiarity with Archive Of Our Own, I know I’m not alone in this]. There is something about the homoeroticism and embodied-ness of sports that just lends itself to a queer narrative [I know basically nothing about hockey but Rachel Reid’s Game Changers series is excellent and I wholeheartedly recommend them, especially books 2,3, 5 and 6].
I was convinced to give Liz Tomforde’s Windy City series a go, and I had my misgivings. As someone who has read a lot of romance novels, and isn’t really picky about tropes, there is a persistent dynamic between male and female leads that I’m getting tired of. It’s not as simple as calling it ‘toxic’, and it’s not necessarily even a power dynamic, but I pinned it down because these books were the first ‘straight’ sports romance I had ever read. As of this writing there are 3 books in the series, and my thoughts on them are as follows
- Mile High – The Hockey Player/Flight Attendant One. This is the first book in the series, but I read it last, and my goodness is it streets behind its successors. The writing is bafflingly, bafflingly bad. The characters have the beginnings of depth and maturity, but are wildly inconsistent from moment to moment, in part because of the awful writing (My absolute favourite bit of Bad Writing is when Tomforde wants to describe someone quivering or trembling, she says they “vibrate”. Excellent, no notes, carry on). There are some interesting themes here, especially to do with body image and abandonment, but they are either extremely thinly drawn or laughably over the top. Also, it calls women “chick” a lot and I’m sorry, but if this was published in 2022, then have some shame.
- The Right Move – The Steph Curry/Flight Attendant One. This is the book that I was recommended over and over, and it’s the one I read first. Streets ahead of the first book, but I read it first and I was. Whelmed. There are some things about the third-act conflict that really impressed me. There’s a palpable sense of pain and hurt there, but it isn’t particularly overwrought and it’s surprisingly believable. My problem, as ever, is the writing. It’s improved but by no means is it good. Riddled with cliches to the point that it felt AI generated in places, and utterly uninterested in interrogating its characters. And look, I understand that romance novels aren’t exactly the place to go to mine character flaws for untold depths, but there are so many lines in this book about just how saintly our two leads are that I felt my blood pressure rising almost out of spite. At some point the female lead politely asks after someone’s children not because she was fake dating the male lead, but because ‘she really wanted to know’. Respectfully, barf. I still ended up enjoying it a fair bit, and despite it being long, it didn’t feel like it dragged.
- Caught Up – The Baseball DILF One. I was excited about this book, honestly. I read it after the Right Move and was intrigued by the premise. Our female lead is a celebrated chef, and I thought I was finally going to get a female lead in a straight sports romance who, like….cares about her job, that is similar in intensity to sports celebrity guys. Little did I know it’s actually about how she hates her job and how excellence has worn her down and she longs to go back to simple, domestically coded cooking, and also she is a nanny for the majority of this book. There’s nothing wrong with this on paper. The book wasn’t bad at all. It did have pacing issues, but Tomforde’s prose is, once again, improved. The characters are likable without being perfect prototypes that have never done anything wrong ever in their lives. They have compelling arcs, and good chemistry. But it carried so many of the narrative hallmarks that frustrate me about straight sports romances. First off, the male lead wants to retire to take care of his child, but it turns out No He Doesn’t Actually He’s Too Talented To Retire He Just Needs A Partner To Be A Mommy And A Lover. The female lead, who is younger and incredibly successful in her own right actually Does Want To Retire Because This High Stakes World Isn’t For Her And She Would Rather Teach. Like I said, in general, this is fine. In a romance novel, there is something about this that feels incredibly dated and gendered in ways that make me very tired. In a straight sports romance, it becomes even more glaringly dated and gendered. Skill and talent belong in public, high-level spaces but only for men. When women have that level of skill and talent [albeit in another field, which, why aren’t there more sportswomen in these romances??] there is something that makes them fundamentally unsuited to occupying these spaces, whether it’s their own internal arc or an extraneous circumstance.
There is something to be said about competence here, as well. I understand the fantasy of a wealthy, powerful, wildly talented man with a perfect physique who is also sensitive and loving and all the good things. There is no question about their talent, their ability, their skill. There’s barely any internal qualms about it either. It’s comforting, not to have to worry about being materially worse at a thing when you’re already on the highest level, but I just don’t see any writing around it. In the queer sports romances I have come across, these anxieties are built into the tension around the story, the characters, and their arcs. Its what makes the characters move, and pause, and worry, and reflect. It affects relationships, expectations, sometimes even sexuality.
For some reason, the kind of progression and interrogation I see in a queer sports romance gives me far more fulfillment than most contemporary queer romance. The register of a sports romance never really feels heteronormative, because homoeroticism is almost built into the premise. A straight sports romance, however, seems to have the opposite effect on me. There’s very little room for friction. Tomforde’s books, while being easy to read and fairly well characterised [not you, book 1], rest on facile arcs and thin premises that feel all the more easily resolved because of the structural advantages of the characters’ narrative and material circumstances. I know I’m being harsher on these books than most, but it’s more a consequence of larger trends in this subgenre than Tomforde’s work alone. It’s just too easy to actually be impactful.