I finally made it through a Kristen Ashley book! The online romance community has really embraced Ashley, a self-published and very prolific romance writer. I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.
Here’s the Blurb:
Nina Sheridan desperately needs a timeout vacation. With a fiancé who can’t even remember how she takes her coffee, Nina wants some distance to rethink her engagement. Flying halfway around the world from England to a mountain town in Colorado should do the trick. But when she finds a gorgeous man at her rental cabin, Nina’s cold, lonely adventure suddenly heats up.
The owner of the house, Holden “Max” Maxwell is surprised by the beautiful woman who turns up at his door. But when Nina becomes ill, Max spends days nursing her back to health. A private man with a broken heart, Max finds himself drawn to the strong-willed woman. Soon it becomes impossible for Nina and Max to deny their growing attraction to one another. Yet even as these two wounded lovebirds think about taking a chance on a relationship, a dangerous secret from Max’s past emerges-and threatens to end their love for good.
The Gamble, like most of Ashley’s books, is long. Very long. 670 pages long. I’ve been reading romance very regularly for about seven years now, and I’ve come to expect a certain length from single title contemporaries, which is about 300 pages, give or take. I was really curious why The Gamble, which has a very familiar plot, should be so long.
After reading it, I think the length is down to four things:
1. Ashley’s writing style at the sentence level is pretty convoluted. Check out the last one in this passage:
Well, I had to admit, shit definitely happened. Though not much shit happened to me anymore. I did my best to avoid that for a good long while but it used to happen to me and I knew it still happened because I heard from my friends when shit happened to them.
And, after lunch, we took Bitsy home where she insisted we stay for a thank-you mug of her homemade lattes, which she created in a fabulous kitchen that also had a load of extra counters that had been built so she could reach them and, incidentally, her lattes were delicious.
In my opinion, this writing style really bucks a trend. Especially in historical romance, but in a lot of contemporaries, too, the trend seems. To be. Really short sentences. Or fragments. Of them.
Like this from Sarah MacLean’s A Rogue By Any Other Name:
He wanted her that moment.
So he lifted her in his arms and carried her up the stairs. Up to decadence. Up to pleasure.
2. She writes in the first person, kind of in the manner of E. L. James’ Fifty Shades series. Other romance writers write in the first person, but there’s a certain high level of self-conscious think-talk that I associate with James. Pretty much every thing that happens, the heroine reflects on. This takes words. Many words:
“He threw a beer at you?” I asked Mindy, not comprehending these words. At least not in recent Nina Land with Niles, who didn’t even drink beer, just occasionally gin and tonics or wine with dinner and he wouldn’t begin to imagine dousing anyone with any liquid.
She often thinks in repeat what the hero says to her:
“And stomped on your high-heeled boots in your cute little tantrum when you walked out that first night and took me on again outside in a fuckin’ snowstorm.”
My tantrum wasn’t cute. It wasn’t even a tantrum. I was angry.
Other times, the thought precedes the action:
I could swear I heard a smile in her voice, so I looked at her and saw there was a smile on her face.
3. The level of quotidian detail is dumbfounding. If the hero and heroine are in the kitchen making breakfast, every crack of an egg, opening of a drawer, the pouring of sugar into coffee, is narrated. If someone is getting dressed, everything from shoes to hat is narrated. Again, compare the MacLean. In this passage, the heroine is dressing for a Very Important Night:
She dressed carefully, wishing she didn’t care so much for what he might think, for how he might see her, choosing a deep, salmon silk, entirely inappropriate for early February, but a color she’d always thought flattered her pale skin and made her seem less plain and more . . . more.
Now here is the heroine of The Gamble getting dressed on a regular day:
I pulled on my underwear and the pair of jeans I bought that Niles shook his head at when I showed them to him. Niles didn’t understand the jeans or the other stuff I bought for my rustic, time-out adventure in Colorado, thinking my purchases would help me fit in with the natives. Niles wore suits to work and large whale corduroys and cashmere sweaters when he was relaxed and at home. I’d never seen him in jeans and definitely not faded, secondhand jeans. I’d bought them specifically for my Colorado adventure in a secondhand clothing store on Park Street in Bristol that specialized in vintage American clothes. They were faded and there was a tear in the back pocket, the threads bleached white, and I thought they looked hip. They also fit like they were made for me and they made my somewhat generous behind look good. Therefore, I loved them. I paired them with a wide tan belt and my lilac, long-sleeved T-shirt that had fitted sleeves so long they came over my wrists and had a boat neck that was so wide sometimes it fell off my shoulder.
Sometimes Ashley’s tendency to write details leads to a lot of repetition. The hero lives in an A-frame he built himself. “A-frame” is used 53 times in this book. They wear jeans in the Colorado mountains. I know this because the word “jeans” is used 68 times.
4. The fourth reason this Ashley novel is so long has more to do with the structure than anything at the sentence level. As I mentioned above, the plot of this novel was very familiar. That’s not a criticism: I chose it because I like fish out of water small town romance. But at about the 30% point, most of the steps had been completed. The heroine realized that her boyfriend back in England was not the right man for her, that the hero was a really good guy despite his rough edges, and that she could settle down and practice law in a place like Colorado. The hero realized he wanted her in his life, that it was more than great sex, and that it was time to get over his dead ex. I remember thinking, “What the hell is Ashley going to do with 400 more pages?” Well, a couple of things, some good, some not so good:
a. She brings in everything but the kitchen sink, plotwise. The boyfriend shows up. The heroine’s parents show up, and because they’re divorced, they show up with even more people. There’s a murder, a rape, a near rape, a kidnapping, infidelity, extortion, buried secrets that must come to light. The cast of characters is long and everyone’s got a piece of the action.
b. The relationship between the hero and heroine felt very cyclical. They get close, they fight, they separate, rinse repeat. After about the tenth time the heroine sulks, the hero asks her what’s wrong, she says “nothing”, and they go to sleep angry, I gave up. After so many nights of no sex, arguing about money, and family problems, I forgot by about 50% in they weren’t married already.
For one solid year (1998), I watched soaps on my lunch break. I watched The Young and the Restless, Days of Our Lives, and even sometimes The Bold and the Beautiful. This book, more than any romance I’ve read, felt like a soap opera. If a guy gets the shit beat out of him one night at a bar, he’s not leaving town: he’s coming back, even if it’s only to pick up his clothes. Even if a woman gets told off for being a bitch on wheels, you’re going to see her at the diner the next morning. No one walks off the set, unless it’s in a body bag, and even then I wasn’t too sure. Everyone has a long history and a long memory. When I thought of it that way and forgot about relationship momentum, I enjoyed it a lot more.
A lot of people have remarked on the way Ashley writes heroes. Very alpha, very domineering, but very caring and protective. A lot like J. R. Ward’s vampires (with inferior sex scenes. Just MHO.). He probably goes a little further than most heroes, for example when he says things like this about his ex:
“She’s beautiful but she’s cold. Great with her mouth when it’s on your cock. When she’s usin’ it for anything else, to kiss, speak, or frown, which she uses it for most, not so good.”
This is the hero explaining to the jilted boyfriend about how finders keepers applies to human beings:
“you didn’t take care of what was yours. Now, as Nina has explained, you’ve lost it, I found it, and it’s mine.”
It’s interesting, because I think Ashley tries sometimes in the text to address the issue of gender politics:
And I liked it that he voiced it as a suggestion even though we both knew it was an order. An order not because he was being domineering but because it meant something to him that I didn’t put myself on display. It was up to me in the end to do what I wanted but he’d made his wishes clear and I knew how he’d feel if I defied them. Still , he wasn’t a jerk about it. He’d simply made his wishes clear in what I was guessing was a Colorado Mountain Man kind of way.
That’s some logic. But I didn’t read this looking for subversive gender politics encoded in the Colorado Mountain Man trope, or to make an argument that the heroine is actually really strong even though she faces a lot of opposition (her adventures makes SEP heroines’ lives look positively charmed). I just wanted to get through it. I was hooked enough to keep turning the pages. It had a few surprises that I appreciated as a sometimes jaded romance reader. I liked that the author took time to explore different aspects of the hero and heroine’s relationship, and took detours into the lives of various secondary characters. But I haven’t found a new favorite author.