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Hot Under His Collar by Andie J. Christopher

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Hot Under His Collar

by Andie J. Christopher
July 20, 2021 · Berkley

CW: homophobia by a church employee. Parent with a drinking problem. Fantasies of erotic asphyxiation.

This is a weird book, y’all. It opens with raunchy pining, segues into creepytown, and ends with a full-throated critique of Catholicism. What did I just read?

As a devoted veteran of tortured priest love stories, I was curious to see if this book could avoid the potential minefields in the pairing. The first couple of chapters made me think I was getting an edgy romcom with steamy high-conflict angst. By the end, the book felt bizarre, unsexy, and low stakes, while throwing in just enough hints of kink to feel both predatory and vanilla. I’d hoped the book would offer buttoned-up characters learning to let their freak flag fly. But it didn’t deliver, and I was grumpy for wasting my time.

Hot Under His Collar starts with Sasha, a perpetually single event planner who’s left her toxic New York family for a new life in Chicago. Sasha’s escape is incomplete, as her rich parents still own her home, and Sasha can’t stop feeling like she should be married by now, just like her status-obsessed mom and sisters. She forces herself to sleepwalk through endlessly lackluster dates.

Sasha’s BFF is married to a man whose best friend, Patrick, is a hubba hubba hot priest. For Sasha, it’s lust at first sight, and the book’s early chapters are filled with how much she wants to bang him. She sighs over Patrick’s homilies, and imagines him whispering dirty things to her during his introductory rites. Since Sasha and Father Patrick keep getting thrown together—at his church, with mutual friends, when he moonlights at his father’s bar—she has plenty of opportunities to be titillated, and occasionally horrified, by her attraction to a priest. Mostly, she’s just worried that this is part of a pattern of self-destructive attraction to unsuitable men. Sasha’s crush on Patrick is so exaggerated that it borders on parody, and I thought at first that this book would be over-the-top smutty fun.

This is going to be good

A Priest gets excited

Meanwhile, Patrick is a dutiful do-gooder with a progressive bent. He runs charity programs, protects closeted queer church employees, and pitches in to tend bar at his widowed father’s pub. But underneath all this do-gooding, Patrick’s wondering if he’s happy as a priest, and he’s also thinking about how “pretty and fresh” Sasha looks in her shiny pink lipstick and demure church dress.

Patrick originally joined the priesthood because of a bad year. His devout mother died, and his girlfriend responded to his grief by dumping him. He admits that the church was so desperate for priests that they didn’t look too closely at his calling. I think the nuns of Fraulein Maria’s abbey would have sussed him out, but maybe his seminary was more forgiving.

Ten years into the priesthood, Patrick is starting to think that charity work is more important than saying mass. His interest in Sasha may not be as obvious, but he can’t stop thinking about her. So when the low-income pre-K program loses its funding, Patrick enlists Sasha to plan a series of fundraisers for the church, and tries to tell himself that he’s only spending time with her to save the children.

First of all, it’s hard to describe the tone of this book because it was all over the place. It starts raunchy with Sasha’s dirty fantasies during church services, diving right into the middle of her virgin/whore dilemma. Behind her good girl guise are constant naughty thoughts about Father Patrick pushing her against a wall, throwing her down, and having his way with her. She was “aflame with desire to lick a priest’s forearms.” Ok, girl. At this point, I thought I was getting a rom-com that would revel in the scandalous setup. Instead the book transformed into a wholesome tale of mutual pining, with jarring hints of slutty kink that never materialize.

Once Patrick and Sasha start fundraising together, they take turns suggesting chaste dates where the two of them pretend they’re just hanging out, and that these aren’t real dates. Sadly, their conversations felt repetitive because they’re rehashing details about themselves that I already know, like Patrick’s ambivalence about his vocation and every thought Sasha has ever had.

Patrick and Sasha’s dates are interspersed with sexually charged conversations and kissing, followed by guilt and attempts to fight against their attraction, only to give in and start the cycle all over again. Many readers love the push-pull of an on/off again cycle, but I’m not one of them. I was frustrated by the merry-go-round of stops, starts, and failures to launch. Patrick’s sidekick, no-nonsense Sister Cortona, clocks their ridiculous dance early on, and openly mocks Patrick. Her withering criticism of him was the funniest part of the book. I would happily read a novel where Cortona gets her HEA.

Just as I started to think this story wouldn’t tangle deeply with any of the potentially problematic dynamics around this pairing, Patrick goes up against an ambitious bishop who wants him to fire a lesbian schoolteacher, and Hot Under His Collar becomes a clumsy polemic, throwing in a bunch of critiques of the modern church, including sex scandals, a shrinking clergy, and social justice failures. The book tries to thread the needle by weaving in enough church stuff to make their relationship seem taboo, while emphasizing that Patrick isn’t technically Sasha’s priest.

Which brings me to my second, related problem: the dynamic between the main characters was just strange enough to be unsettling, and refused to clearly commit to a kink that would have made their relationship feel less predatory. From the first page, I was pruriently fascinated by Sasha’s instalust for Father Patrick. But I found it much harder to enjoy his point of view. Initially, he’s not overtly sexual in his attraction to her, and his chapters felt like a 90s inspirational romance: heartfelt, simplistic, and highly gendered. Patrick describes Sasha as angelic and sweet. He fixates on her small waist, delicate ankles, and silky ponytails; he thinks “I want to put a baby in you.”

Not here for this

Your neighborhood priest says Nope

The book repeatedly mentions that Sasha isn’t his parishioner, but fellow readers…she lives in his parish, and keeps showing up at his church. That seems very parishioner-ish to me. Their power dynamics made me uncomfortable, especially when her youthful appearance is part of the attraction:

“Her soft steps in pristine white sneakers followed him. He didn’t know if he’d ever seen her dressed casually before. He hadn’t even noticed that she was more dressed down than anyone else at the ceremony. She looked younger, somehow, in a T-shirt and dark jeans, with her glossy dark hair pulled back in a ponytail tied with a scarf.”

Sasha is a people pleaser who goes on dates with questionable men, has never had a functioning relationship, and is frightened that she won’t be desirable when she’s older. She felt vulnerable and inexperienced to me, and I worried about her ability to enter into a partnership that required a great deal of direct communication and negotiation. The book dances at the edge of age play just enough to feel creepy, with its “child of God” references and Sasha’s brattiness, without going all in comfortably and consensually.

Sasha and Patrick both have occasional fantasies of him dominating her, and Patrick says he likes to be in control. But ultimately, Patrick is not a believable alpha, which was my third problem with the book. He’s also seriously annoying. Patrick is in awe of Sasha but uncertain about what he wants; he dithers, and defers to the people around him. He tries to pretend that Sister Cortona isn’t running his church but dude, we all know who’s really in control and it ain’t you.

What Patrick doesn’t seem to be is confident. I love a beta hero, but I was grumpy about having to read so many pages of Sasha mooning over Patrick’s dominance when her descriptions didn’t match his actions. Even in his sexual interactions with Sasha, Patrick is lost and desperate. So when Sasha later replays these moments, remembering how his dominance makes her feel, I was honestly confused. Was she talking about the words I just read? Or was she in a completely different book?

For example, Sasha recounts:

“Patrick had instigated the kiss beyond what she’d intended. She’d just been reacting, and then he’d acted. His touch had been possessive; thinking about it now gave her a chill. That night at the bar, there had been no question of who was in control: him. She could have said no, but she would have done anything he asked, short of a crime.”

But in the actual scene, Sasha is clearly in control. Patrick admits that he’d been thinking of her, and she’s “filled with electricity and sensual power.” He begs her, and she growls at him. “She’d never felt sexier, more powerful, less tethered to the expectations of her family.” I love a heroine who comes into her sexual power, but Sasha’s pretending like that didn’t happen made me feel gaslit. And for a book where the couple spends a great deal of time thinking about having sex, the lackluster climax is very disappointing.

These three issues were annoying, but what ultimately pushed me over the edge was boredom. Part of the appeal of priest stories is the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of faith/chastity at war with whatever sexypants thing they want to do. But none of the characters seemed to have a strong spiritual belief, including the three people employed by the Catholic church. This could be any workplace romance, with a hero stuck in a contract he wants to break. Patrick’s problem with his vocation is prosaic. He just wants to help people. But clearly he can do socially-minded work outside the church, which simmers down the conflict quite a bit. And Sasha is a lapsed Catholic who doesn’t believe in God, so she wasn’t worried either. No one thinks Patrick’s going to hell for awkwardly licking Sasha’s bellybutton. Also…

Show Spoiler

Patrick’s main concerns are giving up a job that honors his dead mom, not having a clear career path, and worrying about making enough money to tempt Sasha into a relationship.

But Sasha doesn’t care about the money, and the only thing holding her back from pursuing a relationship with Patrick is her anxiety about taking him away from his calling.

Since we know Patrick is burnt-out in his job, neither of their obstacles are a big deal. Yet, they take forever to figure this out. For most of the book, a HEA felt a single conversation away.

From the beginning, Patrick and Sasha both already know that trying to live up to their family’s expectations isn’t working for them. And they both know what they want: each other. So the whole book is just them coming to the conclusion they were right all along. I found this unsatisfying to read.

When the only obstacle to being together is Patrick being a priest, and because according to this book, that can be swept away with a single grand gesture, the potential for deep angst fizzled. The moral quandary here is nonexistent. When Patrick feels bad about sinning with Sasha, it’s because it reinforces his uncertainty about his commitment to the priesthood. At no point does his relationship with Sasha feel like it’s challenging his values or faith, even though presumably premarital sex, and sex when you’re supposed to be celibate, are both no-nos.

There’s a bit of tension from the risk of being discovered in a compromising situation in public, but the stakes were unclear. Patrick mentions that Sister Cortona could report him, but what happens then? Does he get moved to a new parish? Does he get counseling and stay put? Or demoted? Or defrocked? Patrick didn’t seem to care, so I didn’t either.

I would have enjoyed more angst from Patrick, but I will acknowledge that I have pretty high angst needs when it comes to religious characters and their lustful thoughts.

The story’s main strength is the tension of the mutual crush; their pining sucked me in and kept me reading even when nothing made sense. Patrick’s already questioning his calling before Sasha shows up in his life, and they circle around each other for months before the book’s opening, which made it believable that they’d reached a point of near-combustion fairly early in the book.

One of the book’s themes is transforming old patterns that no longer serve you. Patrick and Sasha start the book unhappy with many aspects of their lives, but they don’t magically fix themselves on their own. Sasha is in ongoing therapy, and Patrick leans into the counsel of his friends. Sasha’s arc involves standing up to the family bullies in her life, though her boundary setting was about as sturdy as the final round of Jenga.

I love a hot priest story, and I tried hard to like this book, but the character inconsistencies, baffling power dynamics, and lack of juicy conflict meant it wasn’t a good fit for me. The tepid sexual content also doesn’t match the early tension in the story. This book might appeal to readers who like a quick spark and a slow burn, and who are vaguely interested in church culture wars. While Hot Under His Collar is obviously marketing itself to fans of Fleabag’s passionate and playful priest, Patrick is no Hot Priest. I enjoyed the crush-filled beginning of their love story, but the plot fizzled and shit got weird. Back to Fleabag fan fiction I go.

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