Many a romance novel features an adorable small town, filled with people and places a reader might love to experience. Ballycraig, Ireland, the fictional setting of Ms. Martin’s latest New York Blades series, is not such a place. The people there, in general, are economically struggling, tend to drink too much, make self-destructive decisions, and are routinely nasty to each other. The town has little charm. I, like the heroine of Breakaway, Erin O’Brien, wanted to get out of there as soon as I possibly could.
Erin has lived her entire life in Ballycraig. She once had plans to leave, plans that fell apart when Rory Brady, the love of her life — they began dating when she was fourteen — broke his promise to marry her and bring her to New York City where he plays for the NHL. Rory smashed Erin’s heart so thoroughly it took her two years to recover. Even now, she, and the entire town, hates Rory Brady for dumping her. Now Erin is stuck working night and day for her demanding mother at their family’s B and B, and is determined to leave Ballycraig on her own. She’s been finishing up her degree — on-line — in art history, and as soon as she can, she’s moving to a city somewhere in Ireland, getting a job, and finally seeing the world.
Rory Brady, on the other hand, has just returned to Ballycraig after four years. He’s realized breaking up with Erin was the biggest mistake he ever made and he’s determined to win her back. He loves his life as a NHL star — he’s the only Irish-born player in the league — and he’s proud of all he’s accomplished. But, he believes there’s “a difference between achievement and contentment.” He won’t be content, won’t have all the success he wants, until he’s got Erin back and she agrees to be his wife.
I haven’t read the other books in the <i<Blades series, and as best I could tell, that didn’t matter. This is a stand-alone story, has nothing to do with hockey, and didn’t seem to have any parts that needed a back-story to make sense. Several of the <b<i<Blades books have been positively reviewed here at AAR; I’d hoped this too would be a good read. It wasn’t. It was, to steal a phrase from the book, “feckin rubbish.”
The romance is first dry and then frustrating. Rory swaggers back into town, absolutely confident Erin still loves him — which she does, because as she says, “there’s a thin line between love and hate.” Rory woos Erin for several weeks, she “softens” toward him, forgives him, and then, after having screaming sex in his Range Rover, tells him, yes, yes, yes, she loves him. By the midpoint of the book, the two are back together, planning their wedding, and having as much unprotected sex as they can. (Birth control is never mentioned — it seems as though both now, and for the eight years they made love when they were younger, they never once worried about getting pregnant. This is especially annoying given that in Breakaway, Erin’s best friend Sandra, got knocked up by a loser the very first time she had sex and has since then had three more somewhat unwanted kids.)
And it is the midpoint of the book, so despite the main conflict being solved —the hero won back the heroine — there are still 125 pages to go. For most of those pages, the focus is on the often unlikable, usually pitiable denizens of Ballycraig. We follow Sandra’s miserable marriage to the scumbag Larry, a wife abuser who buys his kids iPhones with money he makes selling drugs and root for her to find love with Jake. We watch as Jake, Rory’s ex-best mate, learns how to forgive Rory for dumping him too, and forces himself to realize Erin’s never going to love him because she’s always has and always will love Rory. We cringe as Bridget, Erin’s controlling mom, tries to force Erin to stay in Ballycraig by shooting down all of Erin’s dreams. We are supposed to laugh at the other Ballycraigians as they hang out in the town’s only pub, the Oak, where they drink too much, insult one another, and trash those different than they are. We hope for the best as Sandra’s four kids try and navigate their parents’ train wreck of a marriage and all the dead-end choices available to poor kids in a poor towns. And we see, in stark clarity, why both Rory and Erin wish to leave this depressing hamlet.
In the book’s concluding chapters, Erin, whom I already found somewhat unlikable, behaves not once but twice in ways so stupid and irritating, I thought Rory should dump her again. In fact, I never really understood why Rory so loved Erin. Rory is portrayed as gorgeous, talented, kind (with the exception of the boorish way he broke up with Erin and dumped Jake), sexy, strong, ethical, and funny. He’s a bit on the cocky side, but his superiority is, in this book, proved time and time again. Everything he sets out do to, he does and does well. He’s even amazing in bed — and despite their four year separation, has only ever slept with two women other than Erin. Erin, on the other hand, is portrayed as a great friend to Sandra, formerly meek, but now pretty tough, and interested in art history. There’s nothing inherently compelling about her and it’s a mystery why both Rory and Jake — also a great, good-looking guy — are so obsessed with her.
The relationship between Erin and Rory, for all their years together, seems a shallow one. Rory’s reasons for breaking up with Erin are described so briefly and there’s hardly any rationale given for why he decides he must have her back. I didn’t feel the emotional connection between the two, nor did I feel their physical one. The love scenes in this book which all occur in the second half – sex between the two isn’t even referred to until the end of the first third of the book — seemed almost clinical to me. There’s no heat in this book — Rory and Erin do have very satisfying sex together but it’s not written in a way that is erotic or arousing.
I’ve read a fair number of books set in modern Ireland, and Ms. Martin’s Ballycraig, with its rundown housing estates, unemployed men who drink too much, and young people with depressingly limited futures, reads as real. It’s just not very pleasant. At one point, Jake challenges Rory to a drinking contest and everyone in the pub watches and eggs the two on. Rory, smarter and more mature than those around him, deliberately loses the contest and drinks only eight fast shots of whiskey to Jake’s uncounted but many more. The contest, as stupid as it is, is a tradition in the town and, sadly, the best entertainment to be had.
I was relieved when I finished Breakaway. I didn’t want to spend any more time in Ballycraig or with Erin and Rory. The town disheartened me and the lovers left me unmoved. I found this book to be, in the words of Sandra, not worth “giving a toss about.”