Hello everyone and welcome to our monthly AAR blog column. The basic idea is we choose a book every month and have a discussion about it. We being Elisabeth Lane (of Cooking Up Romance), a long-time romance reader who now creates recipes inspired by books and then blogs about it, and Alexis Hall (author of, most recently, Waiting for the Flood), relative newcomer to the romance genre and occasional writer.
Today we’re going to be talking about Amy Jo Cousins’ recently released New Adult romance, The Girl Next Door.
Book 3 of her Bend or Break series, it can be read as a standalone, although it centres on Cash Carmichael, everyone’s favourite dudebro from the first book, Off Campus. Despite coming from wealth and privilege, he’s working a minimum wage job, coaching soccer to inner-city kids. Then his newly out cousin turns up on his doorstep, looking for advice, and this puts him back in contact with Stephany Tyler – his one-time bisexual-with-benefits.
In full disclosure, we should probably also mention that we both think Amy Jo Cousins is the bees knees. In other words, we both know her rather well on the Interweb and received The Girl Next Door from her as an eARC.
AJH: Well, this one was certainly interesting. How did you find it, Elisabeth?
Elisabeth: I think it’s a very ambitious, risky book. And there were elements of it that really grabbed me and other elements that I didn’t love quite as much. How about you?
AJH: I think it went pretty much the same way for me. I mean, I love the way Amy Jo writes. I adore her characters and I’d enjoy pretty much whatever she did, simply because of her ideas and the way she approaches things (and people). But while I admire this book a lot and I think I can see what she was trying to do with it, it didn’t wholly come together for me the way, for example, Off Campus does.
Elisabeth: I really enjoyed Off Campus as well and so I was eagerly awaiting Cash and Stephany’s book. The relationship between Reese and Tom in the first book was just so clearly articulated and slowly and satisfyingly developed. I think part of the reason The Girl Next Door didn’t work quite as well for me was that there’s a lot more going on here than just the relationship between Cash and Stephany.
AJH: Yes, I saw it as Cash’s book, way more than it was Stephany’s. I think what I found interesting was the way it’s … a male-centric romance in the same way that some romances are heavily focused on the heroine, with the hero being more an object or an outcome rather than a full participant in the narrative. So it was sort of like chicklit, in the sense of being primarily about this one character navigating their life, of which romantic fulfillment is just one part except it was about a guy. So … dicklit? Which, weirdly, might be why it feels lacklustre as a romance.
Elisabeth: Okay, it took me a second to get over the laughing fit induced by “dicklit” but you make a good point. I tend to be equally frustrated with books that focus on the female protagonist to the exclusion of developing the romance so that was part of what I found difficult here. The other problem I have is that in Off Campus, I really, really loved Stephany and I…don’t have the same visceral love for Cash. So I felt a little cheated almost? Especially since the entire book is not only focused on his journey, but also told completely from his point of view, which is really odd for me in an m/f romance.
AJH: That’s really interesting, because most people are all Caaaaash oh Caaaaash! And, err, honestly I’m one of them. Or was. I think it’s because amazing bisexual women are, y’know, fairly common in my life. Whereas straight men who are are completely comfortable with queerness are … honestly … still kinda rare. Which is not to say my dude friends all stand with their backs to the wall when I enter a room, but I am fucking painfully envious of the way Cash interacts with Reese. I basically want that for me.
Elisabeth: That actually helps me understand why everyone is so in love with Cash. Because honestly, I didn’t really get it. He’s a jock. But so’s my brother. And he’s…well…a lot like Cash. I just didn’t see what the big deal was. Whereas Stephany just…she’s so brash! Romance heroines are not allowed to be that assertive usually and I love it. She’s kind of high maintenance and impenetrable with her commitment-phobia thing. It’s the reverse of what we see in a lot of romance.
AJH: I agree that Steph is not like a romance heroine is supposed to be, but she’s very like … many of the actual women I know? So, in that respect, she was familiar and I didn’t feel cheated by not getting more of her. But that might also be because we see her from a perspective that is familiar to me: from the outside. Not that I’m saying womenz are impenetrable aliens but while I definitely wanted more Steph in this book in general, I felt I had a very strong handle on who she was. And the slight sense of distance worked for me because it’s how I’m used to engaging with … err … women. God that sounds bad. But, as you say, it’s an unusual perspective to get in a romance novel.
Elisabeth: Yes, and I didn’t wholly dislike it. I was just a bit distracted by the novelty of it. One of the reasons I did appreciate that Cash-centric perspective is that it fits with the other books in the series. It’s mostly an m/m series, I think? And this is an m/f (and briefly m/m/f) departure in the middle. So the other books are all written from a male perspective.
AJH: I also thought that was super-brave, actually. I love that the boundaries are starting to break down a bit between m/f and m/m. I think there’s always been a tradition in m/f of occasionally having your break out gays (Suz Brockmann, first and most famously, I think – but JR Ward and I can think of a few others) but I like the fact that Amy Jo has sort of flipped that dynamic. And there’s the fact Cash is the token straight guy among all these queers, which is refreshingly normalising. Instead of having the one gay guy in the Regency Bucks club or the one lesbian on the SWAT team or whatever. But I do wonder if some of the elements of The Girl Next Door that didn’t entirely work for me arose from the whole m/f in an m/m series context.
Elisabeth: Ooh like what?
AJH: I’m probably going to get tomatoes thrown at me for this … but the threesome?
Elisabeth: I had thoughts about the threesome too. It bothered me more the more I thought about it, actually. I really, really like Varun, Cash’s friend and coworker who joins Cash and Stephany for the threesome. In fact, I feel the same way about Varun as I did about Stephany in Off Campus–beloved secondary character for sure. So I was very pleased to see his character get developed a little bit in this book and I like that it further established Cash as a guy who would absolutely try anything for Stephany. But on the other, I felt it didn’t quite give enough in the way of character development for either Stephany or Cash to justify the page space since that was really something we already knew about Cash.
AJH: Basically, I agree. I liked Varun too but I felt he wasn’t developed enough to give that encounter any sort of charge. And, honestly, I don’t really know what Varun was supposed to get out of it. I mean, yes, they’re both hot and a threesome is a threesome, but his sexual interest in Cash seems to come out of nowhere. Or is bundled with this slightly unfortunate bisexuals-will-do-anything trope.
Elisabeth: This is where I go back to feeling like I might have liked to have a bit of Steph’s perspective. There’s a piece of the scene early on where Varun and Cash are talking about the potential threesome where I really wanted to know what Stephany said to Varun about how this was going to play out. Because I really had the idea that both Cash and Varun were sort of…in it for her. Like, maybe Varun wasn’t all that sexually interested in Cash, but just wanted to get it on with Stephany. I’m not sure whether that’s really valid or not, but that was how I read it?
AJH: Possibly. I mean, they do sort of spin the event as a goodbye treat for Varun so they must feeling they’re giving him something he wants and he responds like they are. But I just had no emotional context for it and I know sex doesn’t always need an emotional context but if someone came up to me and was all like “hey, dude, as a special favour, because I can tell you’re into me, I’m going to let you suck my straight boyfriend’s cock” … I’d honestly be slightly peeved. But Varun doesn’t have much of a role to play in the book as a whole so I was probably just over-identifying in the spaces, if that makes sense.
Elisabeth: Yes, it does. And for such a pivotal point, I thought it should have brought more of the story or the relationships together. Instead what we get is Varun leaving town for good, followed quickly by Steph and Cash having a bit of rough patch (though completely unrelated to the threesome, it’s worth noting I think–which could have gone a different way).
AJH: Yes, even though it’s a lovely, sex-positive threesome and there’s no drama or angst at all, I just felt vaguely uncomfortable for Varun throughout. I kind of felt like his sole purpose here was to demonstrate Cash’s open-mindedness and/or Cash’s dedication to pleasing his girlfriend (in either case, basically to show to how awesome Cash is), which is kind of an awkward way to use a queer character relative to a straight one.
Elisabeth: Agreed. And while it seems to have been a positive experience for the characters involved, as a reader, I thought the whole thing seemed a bit superfluous.
AJH: Yes, exactly. I try not speculate too much about what motivates authors or spend too much dwelling on kind of the-book-that-isn’t-there (or the book of my own expectations) but I almost felt the threesome was there to increase the queer quotient, because there’s still not all that much overlap between m/f and m/m audiences. Honestly–and this might just be me being a pervert–but the I sort of realised on the bus the other morning (to the embarrassment of all concerned) that the scene I wanted there wasn’t a threesome. I wanted more Steph and Cash and … ideally I wanted a pegging scene. Like, it’s not something (in my admittedly limited experience) that’s written about a lot in romance and I’ve usually only seen it in a D/s context (with a male sub) – but given Cash’s enthusiasm for his ‘magic button’, his comfort in his masculinity and Steph’s adventurousness I sort of realised that they were one of the few romance-novel couples I could think of who could have that kind of sex without it being perceived as inherently about power and/or submission and/or emasculating in some way.
Elisabeth: That’s a really interesting observation. I didn’t think about it that way, but you’re right. The only time I’ve ever seen a pegging scene included in an m/f romance was in a D/s context. It’s almost like even within the realm of erotic romance, a menage is less “risky” than strap-on. Because it’s not the first time I’ve seen an author use a threesome where it easily could have been something else. And Cash does spend an awful lot of time thinking about his magic button and lecturing others about theirs, which wasn’t exploited much here.
AJH: Seems we are the founding members of the Royal Society for More Pegging in Romance.
Elisabeth: Do we get badges for that? I really hope we get badges for that.
But seriously, back to the threesome, I feel like we may be in danger of forgetting that this is New Adult romance. I would expect there to be some awkwardness surrounding how characters treat one another. So while I think Varun’s role in the threesome is awkwardly managed, it’s not entirely out of character for that to be the case. If this series is really aimed at an emerging adult audience, I suppose I’d rather see this scenario play out in a less-than-ideal way on the page than in someone’s real life.
AJH: Oh, that makes a lot of sense. Except I didn’t really get much recognition of potential awkwardness from the book itself. I mean, afterwards they’re like, “hey, Varun, we can use you again some time!” and he’s like “yay!” but, then, again, that could just come down the the fact is book is written in deep POV: it’s Cash, Cash, and only Cash, and he’s not always the most sensitive or aware narrator of his own life. So that makes it difficult to figure out, as a reader, the boundary between what the narrator is thinking/doing and what the our own responses/reactions should be, especially when you get to the deep stuff like race and sexuality and relationships between complicated people.
Elisabeth: And I do love how Amy Jo does complicated people. I think Reese, Tom, Stephany and even Varun have a better read on who Cash is at this point in his life than he does himself. Amy Jo manages to use that immaturity to show a really deep level of emotional intimacy between this group of close friends via how they interact when what they understand about each other that is still sort of mystery to each of them alone.
AJH: Yes, that’s wonderful. And I loved seeing Reese and Tom again. Much weepage. Amy Jo’s character work always delights me.
Elisabeth: I really loved that The Girl Next Door was trying to do something different from nearly all of romance: the male POV in an m/f book, the m/f book in the middle of an m/m series, tackling challenging issues of sexuality and privilege head-on. It’s very refreshing to see a writer taking some really modern problems and situations and stretching boundaries. I haven’t read a ton of New Adult, but I like where this is going. And I can’t wait for Varun’s book.
AJH: Yes, all this. Very much all this. I have been so impressed with everything Amy Jo has done with this series. And while The Girl Next Door isn’t Off Campus for me, I still very much enjoyed it and very admired its scope and its originality and its courage. I think the next book is Danny and Rafi. But hopefully we’ll get Varun after that.
We hope you’ll join us in the comments below for more discussion of Amy Jo Cousins’ The Girl Next Door.
And if you want to read-along at home, next month we’ll be looking at: My Dark Prince by Julia Ross.
Elisabeth and Alexis