A Midsummer Night's Romp
If, to you, nothing says “zany screwball plot” like “heroine wants to roofie a guy and take a blood sample so she can prove he infected her best friend with HIV,” then you may enjoy A Midsummer Night’s Romp. If, like me, your jaw hit the floor at this premise, you can join me in emphatically never going down the Matchmaker in Wonderland series rabbit hole ever again.
Lorina Liddell’s best friend Sandy is certain she contracted HIV from a boyfriend on an archaeology dig, a selfish braggart named Paul who has denied to Sandy that he is infected. When Sandy decides to go be treated in a Nepalese nunnery (as one does?) Lorina manages to fake some credentials to get herself invited onto Paul’s latest dig site, Ainslie Castle. There, she pretends to be working on a photo book illustrating the dig while falling in love with Gunner Ainslie, one of the adopted offspring of the house (sequel bait, anyone?) and feigning interest in jerk Paul so she can get close enough to… do I have to say it again? Yes. Yes, Lorina’s big plan is to steal biological material from Paul and get him tested for HIV.
The biggest problem with this book, no question, is the mixing of serious and slapstick elements. Yes, in the developed world, people with HIV and good insurance can live well and for a long time. No, I am still not ready to see HIV infection treated as a comic premise and plot device:
[Lorina explains her plan to her fish, and “The fish didn’t look convinced”] “Dammit, I’m a strong woman now. I don’t need your approval. Besides, I have a higher calling here… Beware, Paul Thompson, for your doom is nigh, and her name is Lorina!”
People with HIV deserve better than a woman using the verbal conventions of a Saturday morning cartoon villain to have a conversation with a fish.
All right, let’s assume you don’t share my objection to this premise. Does the book work if you take away that concern? Not to me. Gunner is, as hero, kind of a douche. (Yeah, I know, I’m going to get some mail on that one. I stand by it.) While I appreciate that the author is apparently trying to bring some diversity to heroes (“His birth mom was African, and his dad was Serbian,” because Serbian and African are both nationalities), I didn’t find his personality compelling. His first interactions with Lorina are clearly intended to be full of sexy banter, but Gunner just comes off as alternately immature, sex-obsessed, and creepily harassing. Here are some real comments and thoughts from Gunner:
“I paid you a compliment. Yes, it was for your ass, but that is as much deserving of a compliment as any other part of your body. Would you tell me I was sexually harassing you if I told you that you have lovely eyes, or nice hair, or that your scent is distracting in the extreme?”
Regarding Paul schmoozing Lorina: “Dammit, he saw her first. Therefore, the unwritten rules of a gentleman dictated that he should be allowed to proceed unhindered by competition. Only if Lorina chose to spurn his attentions should [Paul] make a move.”
There are so many things wrong here that I can’t even begin to explain them.
Lorina, besides her ludicrous plan, has a slapdash backstory of relationship abuse that is so weakly developed that I can’t even remember if the previous partner was a boyfriend or ex-husband, or if he had a name. She’s apparently a French teacher, which has nothing to do with anything, and has barely learned about photography prior to trying to pass as a photographer on this dig.
The setting is all right. Surely anybody who has ever been involved in an archaeological dig will find it full of plot holes, and the discovery of multiple Roman villas along with a treasure hunt will probably make them roll their eyes. But there is an effort to use terminology, to describe digging, to accurately represent the legal status of finds, etc. There are too many characters on the dig to keep straight, which becomes problematic when certain dig members become important to the plot progression in the final fourth of the book. Technically, the writing is weak. Weird word choices (a teenager describes Lorina as “necking”) and silly sentences (“The smiling face of Alice… broke into a laugh before making a little moue.”) just made me sigh. Add to that a strange and unnecessary round of late plot twists, including an engagement to save a reputation (in the 21st century?) and frankly, there’s not much here to recommend.