Stepbrother Dearest by Penelope Ward
I loved this book and I loathed this book.
The first page almost made me quit this book.
Now, I do understand that this is a frightfully confusing way to begin a review of a romance novel, but please bear with me, and you’ll soon see why. It is the story of Elec and Greta, awful names, but chosen for a reason, which becomes clear by the end of the book and has something to do with the author’s penchant for anagrams.
We meet the two protagonists, one a highly sexual and experienced heartbreaker, the other, an innocent nubile virgin with the emotional IQ of a 70 year old relationship expert. An unlikely family situation brings the two 17 year olds together as step-siblings, hence the cringe-worthy title of the book. Thankfully, they don’t consummate their attraction for one another until after their 18th birthdays and after one intense night of emotional and physical hunger, they are separated for seven years before rediscovering that their passion, and love, lives on.
I know we’ve all read books with plots thinner than skim milk, but I can only explain if I tell you that it appears as if three different writers had a go at this novel and hacked up the beginning, made a passionate, rich symphony of the middle and unfortunately, near the end, fell back on the tired, sappy romance novel ‘marriage and a baby’ ending.
To start with, the choppy beginning section gives very little information about the heroine Greta, until we find out she has blonde hair four or five chapters in, and we are left to wonder for ourselves if she is attractive, sought after, shy or introverted until well into the action. The character of Elec, on the other hand is defined for us very well and turns out to be sort of interesting in an archetypal ‘rebel with a cause and a six pack’, type of way. The secondary characters in this story remain just that, very one sided, and with little real depth. They play no advancing role in the plot of the story.
The witty and often sarcastic deadpan jokes, comments and asides of the teens, ring true in the smooth flow of back and forth repartee between Greta and Elec. Their speeches traverse text, whispers and shouts, and rarely have I come across such well written dialogue. Skillful because it is exactly the way teens speak to and with each other. Such truth hath never been spoken by the word “asshat” till now.
As we get to know Greta and Elec, there are many saucy mind games played between them, some fantastic flirtations, and some slight BDSM references to keep things naughty. Though there are enough jealous behaviours to fuel a teen drama, the real skill of the introductory section remains the dialogue. As such, we are privy to Greta’s stream of consciousness, not a bad thing per se as a literary tool, and her thoughts flow logically. However, it’s highly unlikely that a 17 year old has the unbelievable insight, maturity and patience we read about to deal with her own explosive sexual attraction to her step-brother, not to mention his passive-aggressive and oppositional personality problems.
If not for the fantastic sex scenes studded throughout these chapters and the author’s ability to build unbearable sexual tension, I might have abandoned this book yet again.
I am very glad I hung on.
The section beginning with an adult Greta and Elec, forced to see each other again at a funereal, begins a new, mature and wholly well written section of this novel. Taking unseen emotions and wants and describing them through action, thought and words is this author’s gift - and it is evident in the journey back to each other that Elec and Greta find themselves on at this point of the story.
This book made me ache, and yearn in all kinds of unexpected ways. Ultimately, the deeper we get into this book, we learn that this novel is not about the step-sibling ruse the title would have us believe, or even about two teens discovering their mutual sexuality. This is a story about two adult people realizing that what drives their passions for one another is the connection and strength they found in the other person’s unconditional acceptance of who they were/are, flaws and all.
It is this deep understanding of each other that culminates in an intensely physical passion, (with just a bit of chokey sex as a nod to 50 Shades) and eventually, love for one another, that drives this book through to its richly worded middle. It is this passion and descriptive talent that creates a cohesive flow in the writing where there was none before. This section is what makes all that came before and all that comes after, bearable. Rarely, if ever, in the many years of reading these types of novels, has the heat and desire and futility and hope of two characters come alive so effectively though Greta and Elec’s mind-blowing, soul-shattering, slightly kinky sex.
I actually had trouble putting the book down at this stage to carry out the daily chores of life. So engrossed and desperate was I to read what happened next, that I kept going till the end.
The very pedestrian... and mundane... end.
Perhaps it is a prerequisite of all romance novels that there is a sappy conclusion where the protagonists get married, get pregnant and live happily ever after, and this is one book that did not need that. In fact, it hobbles the story and throws it back into the bin of discount romance books it started in. I could live with the almost word-for-word recount of dialogue Elec uses to describe his love for Greta near the end in his book-within-the-book, but the predictable ‘white picket fence’ finale actually detracts from the raw hunger and need of two people trying to be true to themselves. So the less said about the end, the better.
Overall, what started as a cheesy infatuation story of two 17 year olds, turns into a ripe adult love story. Gargantuan emotions worn raggedly by humans, more in tune with their own emotions and needs and wants and fears and desires than most. And the amazing sex. Let’s not forget the amazing sex! That is why we come to this kind of fiction, isn't it? To live worlds we have never and might never get to experience for ourselves. To take the risks we may never get to take, and to somehow to fill in the holes of experience in our own sexual pasts.
And this book delivers.
But only in parts, and that is the travesty of what could very well have been one of the best romance novels I have ever read. This book has stayed with me a long time in my head, making me go through my own past relationships and asking myself if I ever had such a strong connection to someone as Greta and Elec had with each other. And it has kept me awake wondering just what this novel could have become with a different title and a better editor.
As such, I am forced to give it three ratings: Beginning: 2 ½ / 5, Middle: 5 / 5, End: 2 / 5