Kelly Rimmer’s Unexpected is a warm, charming book – but is dotted with little, tiny details that pick at the fabric of its entrancingly-woven spell, leaving the reader to ask questions and frown at the small stuff in spite of its larger good points.
Roommates Abby Herbert and Marcus Ross have been best friends forever, and their relationship has seen them through rough times and good ones. Along with Marcus’ twin brother, Luca, they grew up together in the same tiny upstate New York town, and together all three of them have moved to New York City to chase their dreams.
And those dreams seem to be coming true. Abby is a successful digital content creator and Marcus owns a software startup company that’s beginning to take off. But tensions have begun to emerge; Marcus and Luca have an absent father who awkwardly tries to reconnect with them after years of staying out of their lives, and Abby has a big secret that’s strained her relationship with Luca. Under Marcus’ concerned questioning, Abby finally confesses in a single long sentence what’s wrong – she wants to have a baby solo, and has asked Luca to donate his sperm.
Marcus is shocked, to say the least. The highly-organized Abby had always planned a future to include a white picket fence and marriage to a fellow gamer; that she suddenly wants to have a kid alone, and with Luca of all people, throws him for a loop. Why didn’t she think to ask Marcus? Hasn’t she noticed that he’s been pining away for her for years, convinced she’s not interested in taking things further?
Abby has two reasons for not asking Marcus. One is that he’s not a gamer, and the second is that he’s been a different sort of player for years. Abby has endured a parade of broken relationships herself, but Marcus takes the cake – he’s dumped a phalanx of girlfriends, all when they started getting a little too close to him for comfort. After Abby drunkenly kissed Marcus during a New Year’s Eve party the previous year, Marcus bluntly told her they could only ever be friends, and she so doesn’t want to risk ruining the good thing they have together. Having been betrayed by her latest, extremely crappy, ex and told she has a depleted ovarian reserve and needs to pop a kid out now or never, she’s going the turkey-baster route
When Luca turns Abby down, Marcus – still in deep denial about their mutual attraction – steps in, declaring he’ll devote himself to standing by Abby no matter what, which includes becoming her sperm donor, as long as she’s willing to let him stay in the baby’s life. They immediately decide that going clinical will take too much time and skip counseling, legal wrangling and the six-month procedure wait time. Abby’s ovulating that very weekend, so they decide to try things the old fashioned way – and one encounter leads to much more. But can Abby and Marcus manage to figure out what they need from one another before they conceive?
The best part of Unexpected is Abby and Marcus’ relationship and how it grows, though I liked the surrounding cast of minor characters, who are struggling with their friendships in light of an incipient divorce in their circle, too. Their bond is so good, so realistic and so believable that it saved the book from the much lower grade I’d have awarded it otherwise, because it had so many other flaws I couldn’t enjoy the story fully.
Communication is a severe problem in this novel, but then if the characters had leveled with one another and done it properly, then we wouldn’t have a plot. So Marcus avoids talking to Abby, Abby avoids talking to Marcus, and Marcus and his brother avoid talking to their father, who does anything but avoid talking to them and tries to convince them nonstop he’s not a bad guy
The characterization doesn’t help. While Abby is sometimes charming and Marcus is appealing in his way, they also sometimes lean towards being obnoxious. Insistent upon avoiding commitment, Marcus cycles every women but Abby in and out of his life with an almost sociopathic glee. His girlfriends mean so little to him that he can’t recall the name of a recent one when he meets her on the street. The narrative heavily insists that no, really, because he and Abby have a connection he’ll never treat her callously, but it took him so long to straighten up and fly right that I couldn’t buy it.
Abby needs to hyper-organize every single event in her life – down to what she and her hypothetical husband will name their dog – or she’ll be overwhelmed with panic. Her panic disorder is treated pretty well by the narrative, but I cannot picture her adjusting well to the unpredictable spontaneity of parenthood.
The way the book handles fertility problems is in itself something of an issue. Abby is super obsessed with having a child ‘naturally’, not even once considering or discussing adoption, freezing her viable eggs, or having IVF with the right partner down the line. I know – it’s a romance novel, and if Abby and Marcus don’t boff there won’t be plot tension – but they should surely have some kind of conversation about it. Also there’s something very creepy about Abby initially picking Luca as her sperm donor. He’s her long-term object of affection’s identical twin brother. Just let those implications soak in for a second. And then there’s Abby’s mom, who suffered from the same infertility issue Abby does, pushing her daughter to get pregnant in a beggy, unsympathetic way. On top of it all, the author can’t resist providing a Magical Solution to the situation, which is achieved without fertility drugs.
Marcus’ executive job is described in a way that’s clearly based on the author’s knowledge about how successful YouTube gamers operate and is only semi-accurate. Abby likely wouldn’t be able to survive on ad revenue and corporate sponsorships alone off of an account that has 1.5 million subscribers, though with a Patreon or donations she would likely at least be able to game professionally. I know people with a million subscribers on YouTube, and making money’s about getting people to show up for your content versus subscribing to your channel – and usually half of them or less will. It’s also not the easiest world for people who present themselves openly as anything but white, straight and male; that anxious Abby has chosen to make a name for herself in a profession filled with doxxers, trolls and swatters is never addressed and doesn’t jibe with what we know of her. Also, most female streamers don’t slather themselves in stage make-up to game. Maybe she has a million subscribers because her viewers think they’re watching a friendly ghost game.
I would’ve graded Unexpected much lower without the terribly cute, sweet friendship-cum-romance between our leads. But overall, it has too many problems to rate a recommendation.