The Decent Proposal by Kemper Donovan is a book I brought baggage into. Namely it's exactly the kind of book read and loved by folks who give me the side-eye while sneering at the bevy of Harlequins on my Kindle. Make no mistake - this is a romance novel. But because it's more a romance novel in the same way women's fiction can be "a romance" (there's a romance, there's a happy ending, but the romance isn't always "center stage") - books like The Decent Proposal are deemed "acceptable fluff" while The Tycoon's Pregnant Amnesiac Mistress is utter garbage.
So yes, I have baggage. But this isn't the author's fault. Let's chalk it up to too many years on the front lines of The Genre Wars.
Richard Baumbach is a 29-year-old independent film producer living in Los Angeles and when the reader meets him he's hungover and broke. He's handsome, charming, has a BFF named Mike (who is a girl) who is naturally in love with him because every woman seems to be in love with Richard for reasons that utterly escape me. Anywhere else in the US this guy would be living in his Mom's basement, but in Los Angeles he's trying to pass himself off as a producer. SoCal folks - you know this guy before the first sentence introducing him to the reader even hits the period.
Elizabeth Santiago is a native Angeleno and a workaholic lawyer trying to make partner at her firm. She's poster girl Model Minority. She works hard and never, ever plays. She's estranged from her family, doesn't date, other than work she really doesn't do anything other than read classic fiction. Her and Richard are night and day - which makes it all the more shocking when a mysterious benefactor offers them each $500,000 if they spend 2 hours a week in each other's company for one full year.
They ultimately agree to the proposal and with a few added secondary characters (Mike, a homeless man Elizabeth befriends, Richard's business partner), the story follows the trajectory of a cinematic romantic comedy with flashes of drama to flesh it out.
There are two big hurdles to getting through this book. One is Richard who I flat-out loathed for probably 2/3's of the proceedings. He's a pretty boy with no substance. He's the sort of guy who speaks in one-liners and wouldn't know depth if he fell off a cliff. He's a shallow pool. The other is the writing style. Folks, this one is all tell and no show. What is it with authors shooting for "literary?" Do they learn in some MFA program that dialogue is a four-letter word that must be avoided at all costs? I'll be blunt - had I tried to read this (I listened to it on audio), it wouldn't have survived the DNF test.
DIALOGUE! FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, WRITE SOME DANG DIALOGUE!!!!!
OK, I think I have that out of my system now. Ahem.
So what makes this book? Well, I really liked Elizabeth. She's your classic Heroine With Mysterious Baggage, and I really appreciated the route the author took with that baggage. It's traumatic, but it was refreshing to read about a heroine with a past that didn't involve her being a victim of some horrific crime. I also got hooked on the "mystery" of the mysterious benefactor and how Richard and Elizabeth were ultimately chosen. That literally carried me through the first half of the book when I otherwise might have DNF'ed.
I also appreciated that as much as I disliked Richard for a good chunk of the book - he does grow over the course of the story. For that matter, so does Elizabeth and I liked reading the relationships that ended up developing between all the players in the story. The author also does a very good job with the Los Angeles setting - probably the best I've read in genre fiction that wasn't crime noir.
In the end though I'm left with the feeling that this reads like a romance novel for people who turn their noses up at "traditional" genre fiction. I liked elements to this story, but the tell over show, internal navel-gazing, and lack of dialogue really detracted for me. I'm not entirely sorry I spent a week of my commute listening to this on audio, but I'm also left with the feeling that I'm not quite sure who I would recommend this too. Oh yeah, people who sneer at my Harlequin Presents collection.
Final Grade = C