Monday, September 9, 2013

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Practice Proposal'

The Book: The Practice Proposal (Book 1 in March's Suddenly Smitten trilogy)

The Author: Tracy March

How I Found It: Amazon had a sale on Entangled Bliss titles, and having recently enjoyed a release from another Entangled line (Indulgence's The Reluctant Wife by Bronwen Evans), I bought a few that sounded interesting!

The Review: Liza Sutherland's mother has set her up in an unexpected way--by bidding in her name for a charity auction's grand prize, a date with Washington Nationals player Cole Collins. Liza, still grieving her ex-fiance who died a hero, wants to protest, but the money goes to a good cause: her family's foundation that promotes awareness of the dangers of doping among athletes, particularly young and underprivileged up-and-comers. She agrees to the date, having known Cole from his days at her parents' baseball camp... when she may have nursed a little crush on him...

Cole, meanwhile, has his own reasons for wanting the date to turn into something more. He's had a tough road to the major leagues, and following a recent brush with the law, his spot on the Nats could be slipping from his grasp. His manager Frank suggests a possible solution: Cole could clean up his image by going steady with Liza. Two problems are solved: dating the wholesome Liza will, to all appearances, put to rest his playboy image, and her connections to her parents' anti-drug message will enforce his innocence in his recent PR fiasco.

Frank offers Liza an attractive incentive for going out with Cole--if she can date him until the end of the baseball season without falling in love with him, he'll make a sizable donation to her parents' foundation, helping her meet her fundraising goal. Liza is as uneasy about the deception as Cole, unbeknownst to her, is, but what should be a fake romance for both of them quickly leads to very real feelings...

I have to say, I'm incredibly glad to have found Entangled's romances. I love that the Bliss line in particular emphasizes the emotional component of a romance over the physical--it was just so refreshing to read a romance where both hero and heroine had misunderstandings, sure, but resolved them quickly after talking and apologizing where necessary.

There was another thing I found refreshing about this book, one that made me glad I read it: it was the most sensitively handled and well done depiction of a widowed person moving on to another relationship that I've yet read. It's a subject that's near and dear to me due to family experience, and I've often ended up exasperated by how it's handled in fiction. I was so pleased by how March portrayed Liza's family and best friend looking out for her welfare, and how Cole handled the situation once he knew the full story. The Sutherlands and Paige, said best friend, gently encourage but never outright force Liza into something she isn't ready for, and I was genuinely moved by a scene where Cole acknowledges Wes' prior claim to Liza's affections and the tragedy of his death, and promises to try his best to make Liza as happy as he would have had he lived. No man is made out to be somehow better or the "one true love" where the other is inferior, and that pleased me so much. More than that, I think this is the only romance I've read where the hero and heroine just didn't leap straight into sex. Liza's wishes are respected and boundaries clearly established; the sex only happens when both Cole and Liza are ready. There's no drawn-out scenes of morning after regrets, no awkward explorations of half-developed feelings. It was wonderful.

Other elements of the story that could have been a soap opera-ish disaster were handled with just as much tact and respect, including Cole's backstory, his being conceived following a one-night stand and born to a mother known around town as a drunk. I felt proud of Cole for overcoming the pain in his past and getting to where he is when the story starts, and how determined he is to stay there, just as I felt proud of and thrilled for Liza's getting the second chance at love she deserved. It wasn't just Liza and Cole who felt real to me; I loved the side characters, too. Frank's concern for Cole and occasional disappointment, Paige's lively advice and providing of comfort food, the Sutherlands' devotion to the Baltimore Orioles--it all rang true for me and made the characters feel like people I could know in real life.

Though the premise of the story could easily lend itself to dramatics and cheesy writing, I loved how skilfully March presented both sides of the agreement. Cole doesn't come off as a sleaze just looking to get a new contract, because his feelings for Liza prevent him from simply using her as a means to an end. Similarly, Liza's pursuing the relationship for money could come off as gold-digging, but she wants the money for others, those who need it most, not for herself. Ultimately, their motives for beginning the fake relationship aren't what matters--what they begin to feel as it becomes a real one is.

I could go on and on about the things I enjoyed in this story: that Twitter was an integral part of Cole and Liza's relationship's development and not just a forced insertion to make the narrative hip. That even I, the least sporty person on this earth, could relate to and understand the Sutherlands' and Cole's devotion to their respective teams and their sorrow at losses. But that would make this review far longer than it has to be, so I'll leave off with this: if you like contemporary romance and want a good story with believable leads and an enviable emotional core, pick up this one. It's sweet, fast, and fantastic, and March has made a fan out of me!

** I received an ARC of this book's sequel, March's Tempted in the Tropics (starring Liza's best friend Paige), from Entangled, and my review of that will be up shortly! **

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