Before I Melt Away
Isabel Sharpe gives A Christmas Carol the Harlequin Blaze treatment in Before I Melt Away. While I had a few minor problems with the book, it was good enough that I can mostly recommend it.
Workaholic Annabel Brightman doesn’t have time for Christmas herself. A personal chef, she’s too busy drumming up business during the holidays to worry about celebrating them. She has big plans for her business, which leaves no room in her life for close friendships or anything but the most fleeting relationships. But one December night, she hears an eerie moaning (the sound of her neighbor’s beagle howling) and the sounds of chains rattling (a tire being changed on a nearby car), and a ghost from her past arrives on her doorstep.
When Annabel was a teenager, Quinn Garrett stayed with her family for a year as an exchange student from another high school. (I didn’t know American high schools did exchanges with each other, but whatever.) He went on to great things in the computer industry, making millions as an innovator of holographic computer screens. When Annabel’s brother tells him she’s a workaholic who’s forgotten how to have fun, Quinn decides to check in on her while he’s in Milwaukee. What he finds is a woman who’s very driven to succeed with no time for anything else. Deciding that she needs to be saved from herself, Quinn is determined to show her everything she’s missing in life. Of course, this being a Blaze, that includes some very steamy encounters, as Quinn and Annabel are strongly attracted to each other from the moment they’re reunited.
The back cover goes out of its way to make the heroine sound as pathetic as possible (“Her ex is engaged – to someone else. And as for sex – everything seems frozen inside.”) Thankfully, the character isn’t nearly as dire as the blurb would like us to believe. The truth is while her ex is engaged (something revealed so late in the book it would have been a spoiler), Annabel dumped him and has been ducking his phone calls, thinking he wants to get back together. As for sex, she doesn’t seem to be frozen at all. Annabel is perfectly comfortable with sex, though she’s not interested in any kind of long-term deal, something she’s always upfront about with men. She’s usually the one to end relationships within only a few months.
I have to admit some initial unease with this premise. By making the heroine the Scrooge character, it seemed like the book was going to do some traditional Harlequin-style moralizing about how “unnatural” it is for a woman to be ambitious professionally and not pursuing a long-term relationship. After all, her priorities should be a husband and babies first and foremost, shouldn’t they? It is somewhat implied, with her lack of interest in a long-term relationship tied to the ambition she needs to be “cured” of, but the story never turned as judgmental as I feared. For one thing, Quinn isn’t trying to make Annabel give up her ambitions completely. In his professional career, he learned the importance of making time for a personal life. He wants to prove to her that she can’t let her goals consume her and she has to make room for other things in her life as well. (Although I did think it was easy for him to sit back and judge her need to be a big success when he’s already accomplished all of his goals, becoming a big success himself.) It helps that his methods aren’t too preachy. For instance, he takes her to the Christmas tree farm her family visited when she was younger, exactly the kind of activity she no longer has time for. The heroine’s attitude about sex also isn’t used against her. She and Quinn share a fun, flirty sexual relationship that never becomes a source of angst.
The author nicely plays off the Christmas Carol theme in subtle ways. The story slowly moves through scenes where Annabel revisits her past, sees her present for what it really is, and receives a harsh glimpse of her future. But the author doesn’t club the reader over the head with the parallels and it all unfolds so naturally that there were times I didn’t even notice how it was fitting into the formula. All the developments feel organic to the story.
One of the book’s stronger elements is that it does a satisfying job portraying Quinn and Annabel as two people with deep feelings for each other that go beyond sex. The story has a nicely romantic feel, especially with the holiday mood. We get the sense that while they’re very attracted to each other, they also share an emotional connection. They both deeply care for each other, though it takes them both a while to admit that it’s love. The author develops the story as a romance, not just as a sexual attraction, which was nice, especially compared to many Blazes.
I will say that Quinn isn’t as developed as Annabel. There were times when his motivations seemed a little murky and his character somewhat opaque. He just doesn’t seem quite as multi-dimensional the way she does. The author also has a very distinct writing style, particularly when it comes to Annabel’s point-of-view. It’s almost stream-of-consciousness, thoughts running into each other or abruptly switching to another. Perhaps because of that, the story occasionally feels a little disjointed. It doesn’t always have the smoothest flow, which made for some uneven reading at times.
Before I Melt Away was still a mostly successful read. I even like the title, which seemed odd to me until its relevance came up in the story. A satisfying holiday romance with a light, sexy flair, it should appeal to readers looking for both some sweetness and spice this Christmas season.