Monday, 15 February 2016

Review: Pairing Off by Elizabeth Harmon

4.5 stars

I was ambivalent about the premise of Pairing Off, given that it's the romance of two professional figure skaters, and my interest in figure skating is non-existent. In fact, after two years of working with a Serbian woman who talked about nothing but figure skating, I think my interest could be actually classified as sub-zero. In Australia, we pay very little attention to winter sports at all, really, except that one time when we won gold in some speed skating thing because there was a pile-up that knocked down all the other competitors: 

Anyway, I can't remember now what possessed me to buy Pairing Off, but I must have weighed up a Russian setting and the prospect of an old-lovers-reunited romance against tight, sparkly costumes and a dignity-less hero and decided it was worth it. It was totally worth it, and my apologies to Anton for ever doubting his masculinity. 

After her partner created a scandal that rocked the figure-skating world and implicated her, Carrie Parker is banned from competing in the United States, and no-one in the skating world will touch her with a ten-foot pole. She takes a mysterious offer to skate in Russia, only to find out that her new partner is Anton Belikov, the first man she ever slept with. 

Anton doesn't realise Carrie was that girl in Amsterdam all those years ago, but he feels some strange pull towards the disgraced American, enough that he's willing take a chance on her. As they try to fit years of training into only a few months, their feelings for one another grow, but so do the things keeping them apart. 

The thing that impressed me most about Pairing Off was Harmon's ability to hit both the lighthearted high notes, and poignant low notes, sometimes simultaneously. The reader is inclined to sympathise with almost all the characters, even when their emotional struggles take a backseat to more lighthearted scenes. Carrie is burdened by her mother's death and her fractious relationship with her politican father, made worse by her 'defection', while Anton's just trying to make the best of a bad lot and do right by everyone. 

The romance between Carrie and Anton is low-key for much of the first half, because Anton is still in a relationship with his former skating partner Olga (even though she left him in the lurch by partnering elsewhere). However, there was some top-class yearning on both sides, and I liked that their romantic relationship was based on a thriving friendship, and that they were far away from cheating territory.

Anton's reluctance to break up with Olga should have been frustrating, but it wasn't, because it was testament to his earnest and thoughtful nature. He was dedicated to Carrie and both their personal and professional relationships, and showed great patience with her reluctance to trust him. His unconventional profession was handled with self-effacing humour, such as his distaste for "man-wax".

Writing accents can be a tricky business, but Harmon managed the Russian tendency to omit articles when speaking English without making her characters seem cartoonish. I also greatly appreciated that Carrie took the time to learn Russian, as opposed to other romance heroes and heroines who move overseas but never seem to learn the language.

In fact, I loved the Russian backdrop all together. Carrie's decision to skate for Russia brings to the fore old Cold War prejudices, while the scenes with Anton's family really captured the generational and ideological divides of today's Russia.

While the second book in the series was good, its setting in in mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico didn't capture me the same way, and I am keen for the release of the Russian-set Getting It Back, which features Anton's playboy friend Misha as the hero.

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