Too often good romance novels are undermined by their cover art. Hip Check is a case in point. The cover says sassy, fun nearly chick lit, but the story itself is a poignant, sometimes sad tale of an orphaned little girl and the two adults who are trying to make her world a bit happier.
Professional hockey player and good-time ladies’ man Esa Saari, known as “The Finn” because of his nationality at birth, is stunned when a year after his sister dies in a plane crash, his 8-year-old niece is sent to live with him. Her previous caretaker, his sister’s good friend, has accepted a job requiring a lot of travel.
Sometimes thick-headed and juvenile acting, Esa’s not stupid. He immediately hires a nanny for the child. Former teacher Michelle Beck’s mother died when she was a child, so she’s immediately empathetic with Nell. And they get along beautifully from their first moments together.
The first downside to the job is Esa who runs from any sort of responsibility, including decision making. If he had his way, his life would go back to playing hockey and partying—which includes banging puck bunnies. So at every turn Michelle must get him to toe the line and be the responsible uncle his sister expected him to be.
Another downside to the job is Michelle’s father and brother who have read and believe Esa’s press accounts and don’t want her around the slick, handsome Lothario. When they try to talk her out of the job, she says she can’t leave for Nell’s sake since the girl is still grieving her mother’s death.
Gradually, through Michelle’s urging and his love of his niece, Esa shapes up and grows from an egotistical child into a responsible adult. The change isn’t pretty and it isn’t instant which makes the book an enjoyable read.
Esa is the kind of clueless but well-meaning guy who’s always been successful and rich, to the tune of millions. He’s the kind of guy that readers who have a strong maternal instinct will love. He wants to be what his niece needs, and when he can’t get there through charm, will seek advice and use it.
Michelle recognizes Esa’s good intentions even when others don’t. They fall in love because each one sees in the other an essential part of themselves that’s missing. Michelle struggles between being the nanny Nell needs and wanting to be a normal young woman with a social life of her own. Being a live-in nanny, however, greatly hampers the social side of her life, yet living in close proximity of Esa tempts her to meld work and pleasure.
In the middle is Nell, a perfectly drawn child. Nell is smart, wily, and entirely enjoyable. Readers will fall in love with her instantly. Unlike many cloying fictional children, she exhibits the full range of 8-year-old inquisitiveness and hope. It’s no wonder Esa works so hard to get close to her.
My reservations about the book are twofold. First, Esa’s grief about his sister’s death is never really addressed. Both Esa and Michelle are concerned about providing a stable, loving home for Nell, so that she can overcome her grief. But there’s little mentioned about Esa and his feelings about his sister, other than they were close as children. How he overcomes his grief at her death is left to speculation, but is an important part of his moving from child to adult.
My second reservation has to do with Michelle’s relationship with her brother, who, when their father suffers a heart attack, blames her for the man’s health problems. While Michelle comes together with her father about his illness, she and her brother never find peace. Since this is Michelle’s book, the one time she will be in the spotlight, the chances for readers to tie up this loose end are regrettably over.
Other than those two problems, Hip Check is an entrancing book made up of the little things that make life as enjoyable and heartbreaking as it is. Martin aims for the heart and soul, and reaches happily reaches each.