Note from Natalie: I am absolutely delighted to have another wonderful guest post here at the Radish from Jessica at the newly revived (!!!) Read React Review.
There was something unusual about Sandra Antonelli’s debut contemporary romance, A Basic Renovation besides the “older” characters (in the romance genre, forties is definitely considered older): a semi-serious rival for the heroine’s affection who was actually a good guy. I enjoyed Antonelli’s debut, and was delighted to learn that the rival, Los Alamos Detective John Tilbrook, is the hero of her second book, For Your Eyes Only.
Both books are set in Los Alamos, and both feature a pair of forty-something protagonists, one of whom is a physicist who works at the famous national lab, as well as several of the same secondary characters — friends, colleagues, and family members. But A Basic Renovation is more of a domestic romance (literally, since the heroine was a home renovator), while For Your Eyes Only, thanks to its detective hero, physicist/undercover FBI agent heroine, and murder/stolen classified documents investigation, veers towards romantic suspense.
Willa Heston is a quantum physicist, a widow with an angry teen step-daughter who blames her for her father’s death, a shock of white hair, and a mission to protect her old best friend, Los Alamos resident Dominic Brennan, from an innocent mistake he made with classified information at the lab years ago. In order to help (illegally) divert an FBI investigation away from Brennan, Willa has to conduct it, and she also has to come clean to her old friend that while they worked together, she was an undercover agent. Dominic (platonically) helped Willa through her grief after her husband died suddenly, and she wants to help him now. But Dominic doesn’t like knowing his BFF was an undercover G-woman, and the reconstitution of their friendship on new and more honest terms is a major subplot of the book.
Willa certainly isn’t looking for love, but she meets Detective Tilbrook on her way in to town, when he helps her with a flat tire (she knows how to change it, but the lug nut is stuck), and instant attraction flares. When she rents an apartment across the way from his, additional opportunities for sexual tension and witty banter arise, and despite all the secrets Willa has to keep, she gives in. It’s been too long since she’s had a man, and she finds John incredibly attractive.
John is a nice guy, and he knows it. While his ex-wife used “nice” as an epithet, John is pretty secure in who he is. He knows “nice” doesn’t mean “boring”, he knows he wants Willa, and he’s pretty sure she wants him, too. He asks her out, he shows up at her house with pizza, he even accepts a quick grocery store date when she tells him she doesn’t have time for a longer outing. John represents calm, security, home, and everything Willa needs in her life, but his true beta hero status doesn’t mean For Your Eyes Only is lacking in the sexual heat department:
She’d assumed a kiss from him would be as nice as he was, but nice was an understatement.
He’d kissed her.
The instant his mouth was on hers and his fingers slid into her hair, she’d dissolved then regenerated as if the beam-me-up-Scotty science fiction of Star Trek had become reality. Unbalanced, lightheaded , long unaccustomed to the feeling of a man’s hands touching her, it had shocked her empty system. John had kissed the shit out of her and kissed life into her half-dead body until she was dizzy with it. In a rush, passion had burst from her skin, desire pooled in her belly . Exhilarated, frightened, she’d wrapped her hands around his tie, pressed against him, and held on as the Earth spun underfoot and revolved around a sun about to go supernova.
This scene did not end in any kind of sexual satisfaction for either partner, due to an inopportune event. In both A Basic Renovation and For Your Eyes Only, the first several attempts at sex are interrupted by wacky and unlikely events. I hope the author relies less on untimely interruptions to build sexual tension in future books.
The above passage also highlights Antonelli’s frequent use of pop culture references in the book. Sometimes they serve the story really well, as in the passage above, perfect for a pop-culture loving physicist. I also thought the use of Bugs Bunny cartoons was great. They are what Willa uses to relax, and they are sometimes the way she sees the world, herself, and her problems:
What she wanted, what she needed were cartoons— a Martian searching for an illudium 36 explosive space modulator, Bugs Bunny square dancing with gun-totin’ hillbillies.
The fact that John and Willa are both pop culture junkies gives them a way to banter and bond, although sometimes the pop culture references felt a little too frequent or heavy handed, taking the conversation on distracting tangents.
For Your Eyes Only is definitely more Willa’s story, in terms of the emotional work she must do to put her late husband behind her, reconcile with her step-daughter, and make amends with Dominic, all while solving an FBI case, but John is not one dimensional: his relationship with Willa forces him to find the line between being nice and being a doormat, between his genuine concern for her relationship with Dominic and outright jealousy of it, and between taking a risk on love at first sight and being a foolish old(er) man.
I really liked Willa — she’s funny, smart, resilient, interesting, and vulnerable — and I especially liked that her sexual attractiveness (i.e. low self-esteem about her looks) was not her main concern in life, or a barrier to her relationship with John. I did wish for a fuller fleshing out of her life pre-narrative. I also found her response to the inappropriate “crushes” not one, but three of her co-workers had on her (inclusive of ass-pinching) to be surprisingly passive. I suppose her effect on men was meant to combat the idea that a middle-aged woman is “on the shelf” as they say in Regencies. But was Willa’s reaction to some pretty overt sexual harassment a long-term strategy she adopted being a woman in two “men’s worlds” — of physics and the FBI? Just a temporary strategy due to her “greater fish to fry” situation with Dominic? Either the narrative wasn’t totally clear, or I wasn’t reading carefully enough.
If this review makes it sound like there is a lot going on in FYEO, there is. Maybe too much. Leaving space for all of these other subplots meant that the relationship had to go from zero to sixty pretty fast, and without a lot of time — either page time or narrative time — together. But interestingly, and refreshingly, rather than being a huge burden or barrier, the fact that John and Willa are “older” is used as an explanation for why they don’t want to waste time getting together. Still, the romance plot verges on being just another subplot, and I think the boundary between women’s fiction and romance fiction is pushed a bit with this book.
The writer Antonelli reminds me of more than any other is Jennifer Crusie. A Crusie hallmark is snappy, witty, “romcom-esqe” dialogue. As I was reading, I was picturing many of the scenes on film. Another Cruise hallmark is humor, especially physical humor, and this book is full of spills, trips and splats. Also like Crusie, there are some ongoing food motifs (peanut butter) and a few oddball characters. Thanks to intelligent writing, deft plotting, and fully realized protagonists, I really enjoyed this mature-yet-zany romance.