Desert Isle Keeper
Friends, let’s keep it real. We’ve all fallen in love with a fictional character in a romance novel, and most of us can quickly call to mind our favorites. You’re doing it right now aren’t you? Lately, my book boyfriends share a common denominator: they’re all written by the fabulous Kennedy Ryan. Grip, the titular hero of the Grip duology (Grip and its prequel, Flow), is my latest true love, whom I met after turning to Ms. Ryan whilst in the middle of a prolonged book slump. I spotted the prequel novella Flow lurking in my TBR, and since I loved the Hoops trilogy, I decided to read it. This tiny gem of a novella introduced readers to Marlon James, aka Grip, a hip-hop artist on the cusp of a major music career. Let me tell you all about why I love him.
Before you begin Grip, you need to read Flow, a prequel novella, available for free from Ms. Ryan’s website. In that story, we’re introduced to Grip, a talented aspiring rapper based in LA. Grip is tasked with picking up Bristol Gray, the estranged twin sister of his best friend, from the airport. Bristol, a sophomore at Columbia University, is determined to renew her relationship with her brother and flies out to visit him during spring break. Her brother isn’t as eager to reconcile with her, and uses work as an excuse to send Grip in his place. Despite their attraction to each other and their quick and easy rapport, neither expects anything romantic to develop between them. Bristol isn’t looking for a hook-up, and she’s hurt that her brother sent someone else to meet her; Grip’s already in a relationship that he’s trying to end, and he knows better than to hook up with his friends sister. Unfortunately, fate – and a mostly too busy to bother brother – conspires against their best intentions. By the end of the week, they’ve shared a magical ferris wheel ride, and fallen for each other. But the story ends with them on the outs after a major plot twist.
Grip picks up eight years later. Bristol did reconcile with her brother and eventually relocated to LA to be close to him. She’s now his manager (he’s a successful solo artist), and they’ve launched their own label, Prodigy. Among their roster of artists is Grip – whose first album is just about to drop. He’s made a name for himself writing, producing, and collaborating with other successful hip-hop musicians, and all signs point to him becoming a major star. Bristol, who hardened her heart against him after discovering he had a girlfriend at the end of her LA visit eight years ago, struggles to resist her attraction to him. Grip knows Bristol is the one woman he would give anything to love, and he hasn’t given up on convincing her to give him another chance.
Grip is a slow-burn torture of a novel. Grip chases, Bristol deflects and avoids, and they’re both miserable without each other. So are we! Oh, but reader, it’s so well done. I’m not going to divulge all the details of their story, aside from telling you the pacing is perfect, the chemistry between our principal characters is insane, and the obstacles to their HEA feel absolutely authentic to the story. Bristol is afraid; Grip is determined. Their love affair is meant to be – from the moment you pick up this novel, you root hard for the pair of them to get their shit together and partner up for lots of steamy sexy times. Spoiler alert: they do, the sex is hot, hot, hot, and the wait is worth it.
So what’s the catch? Bristol is white. She comes from a background of privilege and opportunity. Grip is black, raised by a proud single mother in the dangerous LA neighborhood of Compton. Unlike many of his peers who joined gangs, Grip was pushed by his mother to expand his world through poetry and books and education, and she encouraged him to chase his dreams. He’s a talented rapper with a social conscience… who falls in love with a proud, lonely, white woman. Grip’s love for Bristol drives a wedge between him and his friends and family – who believe he should be with a black woman. So while Grip is most definitely a love story, it’s also a powerful, subtle and sometimes painful examination of race and racism and bias. Ms. Ryan grounds her story in Grip’s experiences as a black man – and in Bristol’s new awareness of his world and the challenges he faces, along with the not insignificant obstacles they face on their way to a happily ever after. They don’t doubt their love for each other – but everyone else does. Grip is powerful and complex and thought provoking, just like our lead character. Fortunately, the messaging doesn’t overwhelm the love story, and enhances it in every way.
Lately, many of my favorite novelists have taken a smugly sanctimonious tone in their novels; this self-righteous sermonizing is a major turn off and instead of inspiring me, I’ve stopped reading their books. These writers could learn a lot from Kennedy Ryan, who manages to tell wholly engrossing, sexy, romantic and smart stories that impart subtle, powerful messages that feel organic to the story she’s telling. The characters’ actions and motivations are wholly in keeping with the flow of the narrative and I’m never pulled out of that narrative in order for the author to drive home some secret agenda. Ms. Ryan doesn’t pander to her audience or shy away from uncomfortable subject matter. Yes, Bristol is a stereotypical beautiful heroine, and Grip is the hot and sexy guy she falls for. They’re wealthy and successful, and life is mostly good. But there’s so much more to their story and this series.
A diverse cast of secondary characters play pivotal roles in Grip and while they occasionally detract from the central romance, none feels superfluous. I particularly enjoyed meeting Grip’s mom and the friends he’s grown up with and helped along the way; that they love Grip and want what’s best for him is never in doubt, although I felt Bristol’s hurt when they rejected her. It’s painful. I wasn’t as fond of Bristol’s family – especially her mother – and I was happy she found someone who loved her so absolutely because her family… well, they sucked. I also hated Bristol’s ex-boyfriend and the villainous plot that drives the final quarter of the book – and I wish it wasn’t part of this story. It was cheesy and over-the-top… and dumb and unnecessary.
Kennedy Ryan writes sexy, smart and passionate romances. It’s clear she’s a music and poetry fan, and she uses both to great effect in telling this story. Everything about Grip is gripping – and if I hadn’t already read the Hoops trilogy, it would have sent me racing to get my hands on more of her books. I’m looking forward to whatever she has for us next.