With the market for erotic romance exploding, Kensington is looking to expand its share with its new Aphrodisia imprint. I have to admit, many of the recent Bravas I’ve read have struck me as tepid and mechanical, so I was interested to see what Aphrodisia had to offer. If Susan Lyons’s Champagne Rules is any indication, these books will serve up plenty of sex. But while this is a promising debut, Lyons’s book is ultimately a little underwhelming.
They met on a nude beach in Crete. Suzanne was a Canadian college student, Jaxon a lawyer about to begin his career at a firm in San Francisco. The attraction was immediate. They didn’t share their names or anything about each other, just one hot afternoon in a cave off the beach. He returned her to her hotel and they went their separate ways, each with fond memories.
Unfortunately, Suzanne isn’t quite so sure how real her memory is. That day she’d had more wine to drink than she was used to, which is how a goody-two-shoes like her ended up on a nude beach in the arms of a complete stranger. She doesn’t even remember getting back to the hotel. For four years she wondered if the delicious encounter actually happened or if she imagined it in an alcoholic haze. Her friends urge her to find out by placing an Internet ad asking her mystery lover to respond and provide information only the two of them would know.
For his part, Jaxon has been equally curious about the mystery blonde from the beach. When he comes across Suzanne’s ad online, he immediately writes back. They quickly make plans to meet in Vancouver, where it becomes clear the spark between them is still there. They decide that, much like champagne tastes great every once in a while but isn’t something you’d want to drink everyday, theirs should be a casual, every-once-in-a-while kind of relationship. But of course, as soon as they decide upon their “champagne rules,” they start breaking them.
This is a book that gets off to a great start and slowly peters out like a balloon being deflated. The first third is the strongest, with their initial encounter in Greece, the way they rediscover each other, and their reunion. It’s snappy and fun, smoothly introducing two appealing and likable characters. I really enjoyed these early sections, as Suzanne shares her memory of the encounter with her girlfriends, who encourage her to try and track down her mystery lover (even though the whole memory loss bit was lame). Meanwhile, Jaxon is quickly introduced as a divorced workaholic with no time for commitments but fond memories of that tryst in Crete. Their excitement about finding each other again is contagious, making for an engaging beginning.
This is an interracial romance, as Jaxon is black and Suzanne is white, and the difference in their ethnicities is handled well. It’s not a huge issue or all there is to them as people, but they make note of it and then move on. Jaxon’s past as a Jamaican immigrant and his relationships with both his mother and his ex-wife are nicely portrayed. The book’s most successful subplot involves the differences between Jaxon and an African-American attorney who grew up wealthy and feels more responsibility toward the underprivileged than Jaxon does.
The rest of the book isn’t bad by any means. It’s very readable and goes down easily, but as it went along, I slowly became aware that my interest was fading. This is a completely character-driven story with no real conflict for much of the book. It’s simply a tale about two very nice people having sex and talking, without much else happening. I liked their interactions, but Suzanne’s a little on the bland side. While the sex is plentiful and explicit, it lacks spark and never really becomes quite as hot as an erotic romance should be. The ideas behind the sex scenes are sexier than the scenes themselves: good concepts, okay execution.
The author tries to prop up the story with some small subplots about Suzanne’s friends, who I didn’t care about, and a brief thread where Suzanne believes Jaxon is married, which was tedious. The conversations Suzanne and her three friends share have their moments, but on the whole they’re really not as hip and clever as I suspected they were meant to be. When Suzanne says one of their conversations is just like Sex and the City, I cringed. I haven’t seen all that much of that show, but the reference only reminded me what a pale imitation the dialogue here was.
In the final third, the story is dominated by Jaxon’s work issues, as he finds himself defending a company (which is most likely guilty) against discrimination charges. The NAACP is working for the plaintiffs, and Jaxon begins to feel conflicted about working on the wrong side of the case. This is compelling character drama I found interesting. At the same time, the relationship, which had already been moving slowly at this point, is mostly shoved aside (or maybe it just seemed that way since it wasn’t nearly as interesting). The author tries to dredge up some conflict on Suzanne’s part, but it feels forced and tacked on. The slow relationship development and distracting subplot ultimately means the book closes without much resolution to the romance. It’s one of those “we both like each other so let’s keep building from here” kind of endings that some readers will find unsatisfying. Given where they are at this point in their relationship, this is more convincing than a traditional HEA, though.
I realize this makes it sound like I didn’t like the book very much, which wasn’t the case. Champagne Rules is a reasonable enough read that’s better than average. It just doesn’t match its early potential. Susan Lyons’s next book sounds good and I’ll probably give it a try. My first dip in the Aphrodisia pool wasn’t a complete success but it wasn’t a bust either. It’ll be interesting to see where the imprint goes from here.