It has been a long time since the release of the first two books in the Arden St Ives series, so I feel a short synopsis is required. This will inevitably mean spoilers, so if you haven’t read them beware…
Arden (Ardy), is a young pansexual* man living in London. He met billionaire entrepreneur Caspian Hart by inviting him from a call list to an Alumni fundraising event at an Oxford College at which Arden was in his final year. The story - and their relationship - begins with hilarious banter and a sensual blow job. What more could one ask for? I enjoyed How to Bang a Billionaire very much, as can be seen by my review; the characters were interesting and were being fleshed out in a colourful and believable way despite the circumstances and subject matter and the book was a real BilDom romance with less sex than one would maybe expect. A few niggles began then but the novel was so beautifully written - as ever - I mainly ignored them.
I was less enamoured with book two, How to Blow it with a Billionaire as what started as niggles in book one became stronger irritants. In her review Em intimates that there is too much sex without connection. To me, it seemed as though the author felt he needed to make up for the lack of ‘Dom’ in his BilDom. Alexis Hall’s writing is always beautiful; adult, precise, he doesn’t speak down to his readers. However some of the metaphors, allusions and references were too highbrow. My main complaint though, was that the romance was not romantic and the author introduced my least favourite trope – ‘I’m not good enough for you’ and ‘I will only hurt you if I stay.’ I could hear the lyrics to Johnny Cash’s Hurt, or a John Grant song, all the way through. Add in a terrible accident, a dash to a hospital on the other side of the Atlantic and it was losing me. Happily, one of the great characters who really grew on me and was fleshed out in this book was Caspian’s sister Ellery, who becomes a firm friend of Arden’s. She is screwed up but understandably so, and provides a wonderful foil for Arden’s endless positivity, with her Goth looks and gallows humour.
How to Belong with a Billionaire has been a long time coming - two years in fact - and so expectations are naturally high for this book, especially as things did not end that well for Ardy and Caspian in book two.
Maybe my high expectations contributed to my disappointment.
We find Arden living with Ellery and a member of her band in a run-down loft space in London. He is doing well at the magazine he works at, and I liked that as a newbie junior he is mainly treated as such. Ellery is on Arden’s side regarding Caspian of course, even more so when Caspian becomes engaged to his ex, Nathaniel.
Again written in first person from Arden’s PoV, I felt this time the story was too skewed. Another problem with this last instalment is the tone - it’s maudlin. It only really gets going and fun when new character - photographer George - comes on the scene. George can definitely be described as a FAB-U-LOUS character, sexy, larger than life, talented and colourful. George would be Arden’s ideal if he wanted no strings, no emotions and no commitment. However, George and Arden do click where Arden’s need for D/s sex is concerned, and she helps clarify what he really wants from Caspian.
An unpleasant new character arrives on the scene and causes more trouble in Arden’s life, but allows us to meet up with his Mum and her adorable partner Hazel, again in Scotland. The incident creates another chance for money and enduring love to save the day.
There is a long section where Arden and Ellery go out to help depressed Nik (he of the transatlantic dash in the previous book) in a rehab facility in the US. I’m glad Nik wasn’t just forgotten, but the section felt like navel gazing. Back in London, Nathaniel is not secure in his relationship with Caspian and either to prove Caspian’s love to himself, or torture Arden, keeps popping up with Caspian in tow. There is even a dinner at Nathaniel’s house for the three of them, which obviously does not turn out well.
As we only really ever get Arden’s point of view it is hard sometimes to gauge the motive behind events, despite long exposition from certain characters.
There is too much crying in this novel, especially from Arden whose raison d’être is to be witty, philosophical and positive. Every other novel or novella I have read by this author has made me sob, gasp, sigh and laugh, sometimes at the same time, which can be messy. I think I laughed a couple of times and admired lines such as:
Love isn’t earned, Caspian. It’s given.
…the magical space between days, when the teeth of the past were blunted and the future a starbright road.
Sadly, no sobs, gasps or poignancy were induced by this novel.
There are small parts for previous favourite characters and a shock for one previously disliked one. However, the real evil is never really confronted satisfactorily, and Caspian seems almost a different person. There is little wit between Arden and Caspian, few coveted sweet exchanges. They seem so dour and intense together, I wondered why Arden kept pining for him. However, Arden decides it's not enough for him to be happy. He needs Caspian to be happy too. There is an event, which is a spoiler too far, that leads to the denouement of this trilogy and the affair of Arden and Caspian. Strangely, I was left feeling sad for Nathaniel.
Of course, it’s love that draws Arden and Caspian together - this is why we read romances - and there is an HFN/HEA, but it felt too one-sided this time. Arden’s passionate side and unshakeable love for Caspian is uppermost whilst Caspian becomes more withdrawn, more distant, and his feelings are less defined altogether.
Finally, two issues had been bubbling up throughout the series and just became too much for me in book three.
I remember being very disappointed when I studied T.S. Eliot, whose work I adored, and found out that he deliberately put elitist, academic references into his work because he didn’t want the ‘great unwashed’ (or uneducated) to read, or like it.
I mention this because with the end of this series, Alexis Hall finally slipped over into the pretentious. I told myself I would only include this point in the review if he mentioned Roland Barthes, which he did in Chapter 25. Metaphors, similes, allusions and references from Narnia to Bernard Tschumi – T.S. Eliot to Tim Gunn, even mention of a Fibonacci Sequence. One of Arden’s jokes – which is funny, actually - is a play on a quote from Macbeth in Latin. But this isn’t literary fiction and all those things feel rather out of place in a BilDom contemporary romance.
Finally, on to one of my greatest bugbears in romance and romantic fiction. The biggest markets for romance probably exist in the United States and the United Kingdom, and I assume the same applies to authors. (I’m just guessing here, however.) So why, in a novel by Alexis Hall - who is English, writing in English about English characters in London - do we meet sentences such as:
“Mind if I get my camera?”
“I guess? But why?”
And why is coriander called ‘cilantro’?
There are a few other examples, too. I don’t want to be petty, just plead with authors and editors to recognise that an American word from an English character in England, or an American character calling a ‘sidewalk’ a ‘pavement’, throws the reader out of the crafted fictional world.
I would still recommend this series to people, as even at his less-than-best, Alexis Hall’s writing is better than most can hope to be. I shall now go to re-read Waiting for the Flood and remind myself what a marvellous romance writer he really can be.
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*this review has been corrected to accurately reflect Arden's sexuality
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