I don't read many seasonal romances, partly because I'm a bit of an Ebenezer Scrooge, and partly because they're almost exclusively about the Northern Hemisphere 'white' Christmas, but since I don't associate that with Christmas, they aren't familiar or comforting in the way that I gather they are meant to be. But Frozen by L. A. Casey was on sale and has a 4.01 rating on Goodreads, so I gave it a go, with mixed results.
Neala Clarke and Darcy Hart hate each other, but they're forced into each others' company by their families, who are thick as thieves. When their eyes meet over the last doll of a popular children's franchise available anywhere before Christmas, their long-running sniping erupts into a full-out war. Neala needs the doll for her niece, to prove that she can be reliable auntie, while Darcy wants it for his nephew. After a scuffle, Neala leaves the shop with the doll, but Darcy is determined to get it back. And as things heat up, they realise that there might have been something else beneath their hatred for each other all along.
Frozen was set in Ireland, and had very Irish speech patterns; 'eejit' for 'idiot' and 'me' instead of 'my'. It takes some getting used to, but it contributed to a very strong sense of place. The characters live in a small town, and it was nice to have a romance where both the hero and heroine had modest occupations and incomes: Darcy is a building contractor and Neala works in a hotel.
The bad blood between Neala and Darcy stems from a falling out in the playground when they were ten years old. Although the flashback scene that recounted this was clunky, the way that each reacted and was affected by it was in line with their age and gender. However, I felt that the way this had snowballed over the years was awful.
Throughout the course of the book, the hero and heroine - and their families, which was somehow worse - exhibited juvenile, irrational, dangerous and just plain odd behaviour. Both Neala and Darcy have a tendency towards extreme immaturity, and they have been going full an-eye-for-an-eye since they were children, often dragging their family into it as well. Darcy expresses regret for some of the pranks he pulled on Neala, or was complicit to, in their youth, but they were still horrible, and in fact 'prank' is not an appropriate word for one or two of the incidents. I'm no scholar, but the incident where teenaged Neala has to walk home naked because her clothes have been stolen is surely some form of sexual harassment, or at least very serious bullying. He also spills fake blood on her pants and tells everyone that she has got her first period. I think the reader is meant to excuse these because - unbeknownst to Neala - Darcy saved her from almost getting raped one time, but these things don't cancel each other out. In fact, somehow it's worse that he was still 'pranking' when she was dealing with the aftermath of that. Overall, it's a classic rendering of 'he's mean to you because he likes you' and you know what? Stuff that, women don't have to put up with that shit, and that's why it makes no difference to me that Neala gives as good as she gets, because it doesn't rectify the seriously skewy gender dynamic at work here. And the way that their families react to the whole thing is also quite stuffed up, in my opinion.
Despite all that, I thought that the book got a lot stronger towards the end and began to really enjoy it. As Darcy and Neala drilled down into the hurt each had caused the other, and their feelings, I started to connect to them a lot better, where I had previously found everything to be very overblown. The second half was so affecting that I seriously considered upping the rating, but in the end I couldn't justify it. As well as the the characters' behaviour, which I've already spoken about, there was continual sexist - and occasional homophobic - language from the hero and other male characters. Some example:
Darcy, referring to another male character: I could have hugged him for that, but since I didn't want to deal with any gay jokes from him...I refrained from showing any sign of grateful emotion. (16%)
I scowled at him and straightened myself up to my full height of six feet three inches. Stop being a bitch. I repeated the thought over and over... (16%)
Be a man. (34%)
I didn't care if it made me a coward, a bitch, or anything else. (39%)
I lied to keep from looking like a pussy-whipped bitch in front of the pair of you (92%)As you can see, there's no character growth to be had here; Darcy's still using 'bitch' - and thus femaleness - as a synonym for 'weak' right at the end of the book. These language choices made me hyper-aware of the gendered aspect of their so-called 'pranks' that I discussed earlier, and I not only disconnected from Darcy each time he equated weakness with being female, I actually became increasingly angry and upset. It might seem like an out-of-proportion reaction, but I read Frozen against the background of the US election results. The sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, fear and hopelessness that accompanies it, together with my everyday experiences as a woman, got mixed up with what was on the page, and each time I came across another incident, I'd shut off my Kindle feeling sicker, tireder and more fragile than when I'd started reading. I read romance to make me happy and to leave the ugliness of the real world behind, and the covert sexism of Frozen meant that it had the complete opposite effect. I accept that there were extenuating circumstances and the language used may well be reflective of how Irish men actually speak, but neither excuses the sexist language and behaviour of the hero and other male characters.