Until the World Stops
I’ve read a number of discussions over the past few months about how to address COVID-19 in the romance genre. Do authors ignore it and write as if it hadn’t happened – effectively setting their books in a contemporary AU? Or do they incorporate it somehow? It’s a tricky question – for many readers, reference to the pandemic is the last thing they want to read in a genre they read in order to escape; others want more realism. I tend towards the latter, but I can completely understand that there are those for whom a romance set during lockdown will have little or no appeal.
Anyway. When I saw that L.A. Witt had written a book featuring a couple who got together for the sake of expediency and ended up locked down together, I decided to pick it up. I generally enjoy her books and this was no exception; she writes insightfully about the confusion experienced in the early part of the year when rumours about the virus were just surfacing and then about the growing sense of helplessness people began to feel as the it began to take hold in their communities. Panic buying, virus-deniers, conspiracy theorists, they all get a bit of page time.
Until the World Stops employs the marriage-of-convenience trope (which is a personal favourite) and you don’t get many contemporary romances that use it; it’s a tricky premise to pull off in the modern era, but reasons for this one seem fairly plausible.
After making a Facebook post that ticks off his superiors, Master-at-Arms (MA2) Tristan Holloway is booted out of the Navy with nothing – his pension, medical insurance and GI Bill are all stripped from him. In two months he’ll be out on his ear and the lack of the word “honourable” in front of “discharge” means it will be incredibly difficult for him to find a job. Even though MA1 Casey Parker doesn’t like Tristan very much – thinks he’s always been an insubordinate little shit – he feels partially responsible for Tristan’s situation; he’d tried to quietly to talk to him about the inadvisability of what he ‘d written, but he should have known they’d lose their tempers, and when the yelling got the attention of one of their superiors… it was all over. Casey felt responsible for Tristan being disciplined, but discovering that he’s losing everything makes him feel even more guilty; he’d expected Tristan to be demoted, not thrown out – which is why he responds to a drunken Tristan’s idea of finding himself a “Military Sugar Daddy” with the suggestion that Tristan should marry him. Casey can sign over his GI Bill so Tristan can get his degree, and as a military dependent Tristan will have health insurance and somewhere to live. They can stick it out until Tristan finishes college, then divorce quietly afterwards, and in the interim, they’re just roommates and can continue with their lives as usual. Besides, Casey being married will at long last get his mother off his back about finding a boyfriend and settling down. They agree to think it over for a few weeks, and make a decision at the end of the month.
Skip forward fifteen months to March 2020 and the ‘roomies’ thing Tristan and Casey had envisaged isn’t going so well. Casey finds every excuse he can not to go home each night, usually spending the night in an hotel room with a hook-up, and Tristan is always relieved when Casey isn’t home. They avoid each other as much as they can – their one point of commonality a cat they’ve adopted – but the air of resentment lying between them is so thick it could be cut with a knife. Casey believes that marrying Tristan is starting to hurt his career, and because Tristan’s work hours (he’s a bouncer at a club) have been getting cut lately, it means money is tighter than usual and Casey isn’t pleased about having to rein in his spending. Tristan hates becoming more dependent on Casey than he already is. So things are already strained when the news of a deadly new virus starts to dominate the news cycle and things start to shut down. Casey is still going into the office at the Navy base at Providence Point, but Tristan’s work dries up completely and he’s laid off, causing the rift between them to widen.
As the situation worsens, and options for getting out of the house dwindle to nothing, Tristan and Casey are stuck spending their free time at home, getting on each other’s nerves. It’s only a matter of time before all the stress and uncertainty come to a head, and Casey blows up at Tristan – but with no other option but to continue living under the same roof, he’s forced to take a good look at his attitude and admit he over-reacted, take a deep breath and apologise. After this, their relationship starts to improve, and as they start relying on each other for social interaction, they find that they actually enjoy spending time together. And from friendship, it’s a sort step to a friends-with-benefits arrangement – and then to more. The trouble is – how can either of them be sure that what they’re feeling is real and not just a result of their enforced proximity?
I enjoyed the book in spite of a few niggles. The chemistry between the leads crackles from the start, even when they don’t like each other, the love scenes are steamy and well written, and there are some lovely moments of domesticity along the way. Also well done is the depiction of the emotional impact of the lack of social interaction, the worry over family members, and frustration with those who don’t take the situation seriously. I also appreciated that Ms. Witt addresses the power differential in the relationship – the large financial disparity and Tristan’s fear of being completely dependent on Casey – rather than just hand-waving it away. On the downside, the characters aren’t quite as well fleshed-out as I’d have liked, and there is some overly-repetitive internal monologuing; both those things knocked my grade down a bit.
A snapshot of life at the beginning of the pandemic, Until the World Stops picks up on many of the attitudes that prevailed and continue to prevail during these really uncertain times. The romantic HEA is of course somewhat bittersweet as we’re not out of the woods yet, but I enjoyed watching Tristan and Casey navigate their way through their backwards relationship and come to the realisation that they can face anything if they can face it together.