Perfect for Fifty Shades readers still gobbling up all the feels of the romance genre. Jaded readers might want to give this one a miss.
An advance reading copy of this book was generously provided by the the publisher.
There’s something charming about the crop of romance books that owe their popularity to the reading surge caused by Fifty Shades of Grey. There’s something raw about the writing, and if that means some untidiness in the prose or structure or narrative arc, I’m starting to be converted to the idea that this is all part of its charm. The genre evolves and that’s as it should be.
Swear On This Life starts off in this vein. There’s nothing particularly surprising about Em, an aspiring writer — oh god, I though we got over aspiring writer main characters in the 90s and here we’ve come full circle! — who is living an okay if emotionally closed off life, with her teaching job, easygoing roommate, and ex-jock boyfriend. Her ho-hum existence is clear from the opening pages, so when roommate Cara hands Em the book currently taking the literary world by storm and Swear On This Life drops its first plot twist, I couldn’t help but be intrigued:
Once inside, I plopped down on my bed and cracked open the book to the first page. From the moment I read the second line in the first paragraph, my heart rate tripled. Instantly, I was sweating. By the end of the first page, I was almost hysterical.
It turns out that the book is a recounting of Em’s childhood — a story she refuses to relive, not even with boyfriend Trevor. It’s a source of tension for them. Trevor senses the distance she imposes, and each time he tries to break through it, she rebuffs him.
Em realises that the author of the book she’s reading is her childhood best friend and first love Jase. Swear On This Life uses a story within the story to reveal Em and Jase’s backstory. I always find childhood sweethearts irresistible. Renée Carlino [ T | F | W ] draws out the narrative a little too long for me, but even so, there’s just something about teenage romance that never fails to charm me. Present-day Em is wholly predictable, but her passionate teenage self carries the narrative through.
And then we meet Jase in the present day and the book falls apart. The thing is, I love the alpha hero archetype. I love the playboy with a broken heart backstory. But never once while reading this book did I feel this was the right hero archetype to heal the heroine. I feel like Carlino fell back on familiar tropes without really examining whether or not this was the right fit for her characters. By the time Jase smirks at Em, and ogles her beautiful everything, and whispers in her ear that she should break up with Trevor, I’m so deeply disappointed at the kind of man he’s become, I could barely move myself to finish the book.
There’s just something incredibly douchey about Jase. After years of not contacting Em, he finds himself face to face with her and then expects her to understand the hurt that he caused her. And when she asks him for an explanation, all he can give her is, ‘Finish the book.’ What. An. Arsehole.
And yes, this is me, romance reader of 25+ years reading this book with jaded eyes through admittedly rose-coloured glasses. I expect this book to tug at the heartstrings of readers who loved Christian and Ana, and who long for the feels of Nicholas Sparks [ T | F | W ] without the unhappy ending. [SPOILER] And in fact, I laughed when I realised that Jase had written what basically amounts to a Nicholas Sparks book. Can there be anything less sexy?
But if you’ve read a lot of romances with beautifully nuanced character arcs, Swear On This Life is likely to disappoint. Em is set up as a heroine with a lot of emotional baggage, and she needed someone who would take her out of her comfort zone, but will treat her kindly when she’s at her most vulnerable. Jase wasn’t that hero. Her roommate wasn’t that friend. Her lesbian aunts weren’t even on her side half the time. (Instead of pushing her to date him, they should have told her to stay away from Stalin.) It says something about a romance book when the ex-boyfriend is my favourite character.
Content advisory: Em’s backstory includes physical abuse, and there’s a not-too-graphic scene involving a dead teenager.