Against the Rules
When I pick up a small press book, I feel like I’m taking a chance. Which is not to say that the “Large publisher = good books” equation is true or valid, but the quality of small press books is hard to pin down since small publishers publish few books and all of them by relatively unknown authors. Against the Rules by Natalie Damschroder wasn’t any worse than most contemporary books I’ve read this year, but it wasn’t any better either.
Veronica Bailey is the Vice President for Consumer Affairs at First Pennsylvania Bank of Harrisburg, a small bank with a conservative (read: prudish) president. She’s on her way up the ladder and aspires to the bank presidency one day, but unfortunately makes two small errors in her personal life that jeopardize this goal. She breaks up with Colin, another First Penn VP who takes it personally and takes it out on Veronica, and she starts dating Nick Trent.
Nick is a scruffy-looking philosophy professor who rides a motorcycle and looks like sex on a stick to Veronica. But she’s afraid that he looks like a ticket to the unemployment line to her boss. Several of Veronica’s coworkers were let go when their personal lives got too messy for her boss’s taste, so she knows she should avoid Nick like the plague. But the chemistry between them is strong and volatile, and after Colin she’s in the mood for a little fun. Problem is, Nick doesn’t just want to be her temporary sex object. He’s been a rolling stone long enough. Now he wants to settle down. With Veronica.
There are several conflicts in this story, and they all have to do with deception. Veronica likes Nick, but she’s scared to be seen in public with him for fear that it will get back to her boss. Nick senses that she’s ashamed of him, but can hardly fault her for trying to keep him a secret when he’s got an even bigger secret of his own. Nick’s a stripper, although only part-time. He co-owns Black Tie, Inc. with his college roommate, and when necessary he performs on stage. Nick is souring on this sideline career as he knows that he could lose his chance at tenure if it’s revealed. It could also cause Veronica a lot of problems. But he can’t figure a way to tell her about it or to get out of one final entertainment commitment.
There are a number of other things going on in the book with Veronica’s sister and Nick’s brother and both sets of parents. This is probably because Veronica and Nick’s storyline really isn’t interesting enough without these side stories. While I’m a person who likes character-driven fiction and dislikes suspense for the sake of faux excitement, their romance was a little too lifelike. It was full of the minutiae of dating – the “Should I go out with him? Are we going to fast? Am I really ready for commitment?” – questions and dilemmas that are important in real life but less than riveting in fiction. And, unfortunately, the family subplots were resolved either too quickly or unsatisfactorily or both.
Veronica’s main fear – getting fired by her boss for unbecoming behavior outside of work – seemed unbelievable to me. Can you be fired for dating a biker even if your boss is a total prig? That seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen (perhaps Veronica’s fears might be founded if she worked under an employment contract with a morality clause and she knew Nick stripped “on the side,” but her fear related to his riding a motorcycle), Another thing that seemed off was Nick’s attitude toward stripping. While I can imagine that over time he might have moved beyond wanting to strip for cash, he seems to regard the profession with a certain ambivalence that borders on disgust. And he doesn’t keep his tips. In fact, he’s never kept his tips – he’s always given them to charity. What’s the point, then, in stripping? Why doesn’t he just teach ballroom dancing? Then he could tell his parents what he does. There’s a fair amount about Nick that works too hard to be contradictory. He dresses like a biker, but he’s a philosophy professor. He strips for a living and calls his mom and dad all the time to check up on them. And he has an uber-buff body, but he never seems to work out. It’s possible to have a good body without that bench- pressing, but it’s impossible to have a ripped stripper bod without working on it all the time.
The story’s conclusion comes after some pretty coincidental deus ex machina maneuvering on the part of the author to get the characters in place for maximum flinchage. It’s possible that this kind of climax could occur in nature, but Murphy would have to be working his law 24/7 to make it happen.
Ultimately I found Against the Rules to be readable but not believable. The characters were nice people, but they didn’t always act like the people they were supposed to be, and Nick was a little too good to be true. Still if you like stories about hot, unattainable guys who fall hard and fast for the good girl, this story might be worth picking up.