Note and spoiler warning: This is the longest review I’ve ever written, so here’s the TL;DR version: Love, In English gets a NOPE in every language. If you still feel like reading the review, keep in mind that there are visible and unannounced spoilers all over it.
I’ve heard so many great things about Ms. Halle’s books that it was hard for me to resist her first standalone Contemporary Romance.
Our heroine is Vera, a 23-year-old student who decides to spend the summer teaching conversational English in Spain. The program, which looks a lot like a retreat, is a great deal because she gets to stay in a fabulous hotel and all she has to do is spend the day speaking English with people who are mostly fluent. There is a lot of partying and sex, so it’s not the most professional environment ever, but it’s a good forced-proximity setup to justify our main characters falling in love.
The first day, Vera meets 38-year-old former soccer superstar, Mateo. She is very attracted to him and the feelings are mutual, but Mateo is married and has a young daughter, so she fights the feelings as best she can. However, the more time they spend together, the more they like each other and it’s no surprise when they fall in love. Actually, it is a surprise, because these two have nothing in common. Although he is going through an early midlife crisis and she is reckless, immature and has managed to convince herself that she’s a lonely, tormented soul, so I guess their eventual affair makes some sense, but not in the way it was intended.
The book starts off on the wrong foot because it comes with this note:
"Love, in English is a character-driven love story about two different people who find solace in each other under unlikely circumstances. It contains some hot-button issues, such as adultery, however I tried to handle it in a respectful and realistic way, so please don’t let that deter you from enjoying Vera and Mateo’s heartbreaking story."I don’t know what to make of it. Yes, adultery isn’t a well-regarded theme in Romance, but I already knew what I was getting into when I read the blurb, and I feel like the note is a veiled attempt at opting-out of potential criticism. Also, I appreciate the thought and care, but at this point the reader is the one who gets to decide whether something was handled well or not. Perhaps this is just an extra way to make sure Romance readers aren’t blindsided by the adultery, but it is intrusive.
That aside, the book opens with Vera having sex with someone who isn’t the hero, something that was a pleasant surprise. I know my initial description of her character was a bit rough, but I think she’s the strongest part of the novel. This is a young woman who enjoys sex, partying, and who makes reckless, immature decisions. Throughout the novel she is incapable of taking responsibility for herself and her actions, and the internal issues she struggles with are more imaginary than anything else. She identifies as a villain:
"And in the story of my life, I am the villain.
How could I not be?
Tattoos and piercings.
I love food too much.
I love sex too much.
And I’ve had part in breaking up a marriage."But the truth is that she keeps making excuses and acting like a hero surrounded by villains like her mother, sister and father, and blames it all on her uncontrollable feelings:
"But I’m starting to think that most villains aren’t evil—they are just misunderstood.
Or victims of that most manipulative force: love."Vera is neither sympathetic nor likeable, and she never gets a satisfying or consistent character arc, but it’s easy to see where she is coming from and to be invested in her growth. That growth never happens, though, and I think the Romance label does her a disservice by focusing our attention on the relationship and not just on her as a character with a journey that isn’t tied to an expected resolution. Don’t get me wrong, this is a bad book regardless of labels, but different expectations would have made it more palatable.
Mateo, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities, and I won’t even try to pretend there’s anything positive about him. After an injury ended his career, he married the woman who helped him refocus his life. He’s clearly unhappy and bored, so he sees Vera as a refreshing escape. He pursues her in a relentless, yet subtle way, but he always comes across as a seducer. The book would like you to believe that these two share a powerful connection, after all, she fills his life we stars and cures the unbearable lightness of his manpain:
“My life used to be chaotic,” he said quietly. “It used to be more of a life. Then the accident happened. And I met Isabel. She took the chaos that was my life and organized it. She trimmed it, separated it. and put it into these tiny boxes, boxes I was too scared to touch. You, you, Vera, you found those boxes and you opened them up. You ripped them apart. You let the chaos loose, filling my life with energy and stars again.” His lids drooped seductively, the grip on my neck becoming firmer. “You burn so brightly,” he said, his voice low and rough to raise the hair on my arms. “I would like to burn with you.”But the only connection they share is sexual, and the isolated setup that works so well justifying their initial relationship, doesn’t work when we try to imagine them as a real couple in the real world. And of course, Mateo is an immature, whiny man who is too busy blaming everyone else instead of taking responsibility over his own actions and decisions.
On top of all that, Mateo is a moody and controlling alpha whom Vera describes as “such a man, a man I had never had before, a new, beautiful breed of maturity and machismo” and who makes her feel like she “was a virgin again”. The moment a random man approaches her, Mateo doesn't quite pee on her, but he does the alpha-hole equivalent of that:
“What is…what?” I asked, still a bit confused as he brought me over to the handicapped stall and locked us both in there. “Um, Mateo.”
He grabbed my face and started kissing me, hard and feverish. The breath was sucked out of me, replaced with fire. “I am the only man for you,” he growled. “I’m going to come inside of you and I’m going to make you come hard.”Excuse me while a swoon.
As for the infidelity, well, we get plenty of hints that Mateo is in a loveless marriage to a rich, privileged princess (she is an actual member of the Spanish royalty), and that meeting Vera makes him realize that “eight years is a long time to be unhappy”. Eventually, he leaves her and asks for a divorce, but it takes longer for him to take Vera, who by that point had quit college and moved to Madrid, out of the mistress closet, because vindictive bitches are vindictive, and he’s afraid that his wife won’t let them see their kid. This situation is quickly and happily resolved two pages before the book ends, but not before the wife spits on Vera.
I have read and liked infidelity plots before, so that’s not the issue here. The problem is that a book that claims to be respectful and gives the other woman her own story, falls into the trap (or in this case, makes no effort to avoid it) of turning the wife into the real other woman. Why? Because faced with the lack of deep characterization that should provide us with, if not empathy, at least some understanding, the easy way out is to create an excuse to justify the main characters’ poor behavior. And what better excuse than a borderline evil, vapid woman who sucked the life out of our poor hero and trapped him in an unhappy marriage.
But wait, there’s more!
Let me introduce you to minor character, Lauren:
In contrast, her seatmate was named Lauren, who was studying to be a film critic at NYU’s film program, wrote for the university paper picking apart what was wrong with today’s films, lived with her roommate in the Village, was an only child and a vegan. She was also against American Apparel. I learned this because at one point during our conversation she was eyeing my shirt (I kept pulling it up to make sure I wasn’t flashing too much boob) and asked me point blank what I was wearing.
I exchanged a quick look with Claudia, who looked wide-eyed and helpless, and said, “I don’t know. I think I got it at American Apparel.”
Which, was true. I totally stocked up on the basics there before I came.
The look of disgust on Lauren’s face was like I just told her I eat dirty diapers for breakfast.
“American Apparel is a horrible company that demeans women by making their employees pose in overtly sexualized ways.”
“Well,” I said slowly, noticing that a vein on her left temple was throbbing, “I gathered that from their ads. But hey, at least they aren’t exploiting children in China.”
She narrowed her eyes. “There have been many sexual harassment cases. I don’t understand how any woman could support a company that perpetrates rape culture.”
I frowned, totally lost at her train of reasoning. “I’m sorry?”
“I must interrupt,” Mateo spoke up innocently. “I think the shirt looks very nice on her.”
Lauren’s beady eyes darted to his wedding ring. “You shouldn’t.”And this:
“You must come from a very strange country,” Mateo said, “where women are not allowed to kiss men for their own pleasure.”
Was Mateo sticking up for me, for the fact that I had kissed Dave?
Lauren looked appalled. “I am from America. Women are better than men in America and we are allowed to do whatever we want. Frankly, I think you and your country is a little bit backwards, with your politically incorrect machismo and caveman mentality. Not to mention how racist and repressive you are toward the Moors and anyone else who emigrates from Africa.”She is such a ridiculous stereotype of an activist/feminist that I had to re-read her parts to make sure I wasn't imagining things. Whether this was an unfortunate attempt at comedy or just certain political views permeating into the story, I don't know, but when a book makes me wonder if it was co-written by Rush Limbaugh, it's time for me to reconsider my reading choices (or at least my selection process).
And last by not least, we have the bad Spanish, which you guys know how much I love (emphasis mine):
Here’s Mateo, our Spanish hero, swearing in French:
“Merde,” he swore harshly into the phone. “Fuck. Fuck!”It should be mierda. Seriously, people, it's really not that difficult.
Swear words are not one of the book’s strengths, as we can see from this:
“Speaking of Spanish, I guess I never did teach you all the bad words.”
“Puta cona, vete a la mierda, punta, tonta, bastardo, pendajo, chinga tu madre,” Ricardo gleefully rattled off.I don’t know what cona is, so I assume he meant coño. I guess pendajo is a misspelled form of pendejo, which, like chinga, is a Mexican curse word that is not used in Spain, because languages have regional variations.
And finally, here’s another example of why Google Translate is not your friend:
“Si,” Mateo said to me, his voice strained. “Te llamaré de Nuevo, estoy teniendo el desayuno.”Two things you don’t do in Spanish: 1. You don’t capitalize random words, so I don’t know what that Nuevo is doing there, and 2. You don’t have breakfast (desayuno), you either eat it (estoy comiendo el desayuno) or you just desayunas (estoy desayunando).
I wanted to use this book as a starting point to talk about how new readers and new labels like New Adult, as well as the more emotionally-charged reading/writing experiences, are shaping and changing the Romance genre (Love, in English is sold as Contemporary Romance, but I think a big chunk of its audience are NA readers). It’s a conversation worth having, but this book doesn't deserve it, so let’s take a rain check on that, because I bet you’re as tired as I am.
Review by Brie
A standalone, contemporary romance....
He’s thirty-eight. I’m twenty-three.
He speaks Spanish. I speak English.
He lives in Spain. I live in Canada.
He dresses in thousand-dollar suits. I’m covered in tattoos.
He’s married and has a five-year old daughter.
I’m single and can’t commit to anyone or anything.
Until now. Because when they say you can’t choose who you fall in love with, boy ain’t that the damn truth.
To a restless dreamer like Vera Miles, it sounded like the experience of a lifetime. Instead of spending her summer interning for her astronomy major, she would fly to Spain where she’d spend a few weeks teaching conversational English to businessmen and women, all while enjoying free room and board at an isolated resort. But while Vera expected to get a tan, meet new people and stuff herself with wine and paella, she never expected to fall in love.
Mateo Casalles is unlike anyone Vera has ever known, let alone anyone she’s usually attracted to. While Vera is a pierced and tatted free spirit with a love for music and freedom, Mateo is a successful businessman from Madrid, all sharp suits and cocky Spanish charm. Yet, as the weeks go on, the two grow increasingly close and their relationship changes from purely platonic to something…more.Love, in English by Karina Halle
Something that makes Vera feel alive for the first time.
Something that can never, ever be.
Or so she thinks.
Metal Blonde Books. April 20, 2014.