The Penalty Box
The Penalty Box is more a story of personal growth than a romance novel, although the romance between Paul van Dorn and Katie Fischer is the catalyst that helps them truly see what they were, are, and can become. Katie Fisher grew up fatherless in Duxbury, Conneticut a small town that’s stayed small. In high school, Katie made the hat trick for losers – she was poor, brainy, and fat, and her school days were terrible thanks to a group of jocks and cheerleaders who tormented her at every opportunity. Katie covered her unhappiness with a barrage of smart quips, and when she got a scholarship to college, she left town vowing to shake the dust of the place off her feet.
As the book opens, Katie is back in town and we see that the years have been kind to her. Katie now lives in Vermont, she’s a respected college professor, and after having lost a lot of weight, she’s remained svelte for years. She has a nice home, good friends and normally would not have set foot back in Duxbury, but her sister Mina is in rehab. Katie takes a sabbatical and plans to write a book and help her mother take care of Mina’s son Tuck. When her mother insists that Katie go to her high school reunion, Katie agrees – reluctantly. At the reunion, Katie meets several of her old tormentors, and most of them apologize for what they put her through. Not Liz Flaherty, though. Liz was the worst snob in high school, and hasn’t changed a bit. Even though Katie has more spine now, Liz’s jibes still hurt. What else hurts is seeing Liz with the town golden boy, Paul van Dorn.
Paul was one of the top jocks in high school. He was a talented hockey layer and got an athletic scholarship to Cornell. He never graduated; instead he went on to play pro hockey and had a brilliant career that was cut short by three concussions. Rather than risk permanent brain damage, Paul came back to Duxbury and bought a bar, which he named The Penalty Box. He holds court there, signing autographs and reliving his glory days.
Paul and Katie begin to date and later begin an affair. Their relationship is a complicated one: she’s a college professor, he’s a college dropout, she hates Duxbury, he has a business there. As they talk, Paul insists he’s happy where he is, but Katie declares he is stagnating by living past glories. Paul tells Katie she is over analyzing, and they spend much time arguing. But there is an undeniable bond between them, and gradually they both begin to think over their lives.
Katie could be a terrible snob at times. I got very tired of her whining about how Duxbury didn’t have a Starbucks (you know, people got along very well nicely their own coffee for years) and when she lapsed into academise, my eyes glazed over. But she wasn’t just a brainy snob who looked down on the townies. Katie cared about her family and was a good mother substitute to her nephew. Her relationship with Paul changes both their lives. If he hadn’t met Katie, he would probably have been content to live in the past and never move forward, but because of her, he thinks about what he’s doing now and what he really wants out of life.
Katie changes too. At first she looks down her nose at athletes, seeing them as violent jocks and deconstructing them. But as she sees how playing hockey under Paul’s coaching changes her nephew Tuck for the better, she mellows. Katie realizes that sports have much to offer boys and men and Tuck is better off playing hockey than spending time with his feckless mother and her string of loser boyfriends.
I enjoy books with athletes as heroes, and this is one of the better ones. While not quite as good as Deidre Martin’s first book, Body Check, The Penalty Box is still a most enjoyable read.