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40-Love by Olivia Dade

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by Olivia Dade
June 18, 2020 · Hussies & Harpies Press

40-Love is part of the Marysburg series by Olivia Dade. Shana and I both enjoyed this romance between a tennis player in his twenties and a forty-year-old high school assistant principal on vacation. The book glories in having a fat heroine and addresses issues including chronic pain, the challenge of reinventing oneself, inequities in the American school system, and navigating romance across an age gap. Despite all these topics, however, the book remains light and lovely, providing “I’m on vacation” fantasy to go along with the romance.

Behold the plot: Forty-year-old Tess is at a vacation resort. Her ocean swim is interrupted when she loses her bikini top. Luckily, twenty-six year old Lucas, a tennis instructor at the resort, comes to her aid. Will Tess and Lucas manage to overcome an age difference, Lucas’ traumatic past, and Tess’s self-esteem issues in the short time that they have before Tess’ vacation ends? Guess.

Shana: I know nothing about tennis. But with that caveat, this is my favorite tennis romance.

Carrie: This is my only tennis romance, so yes, my favorite for sure!

There is so little about this book that I didn’t like that I want to get that stuff out of the way so I can relax and swoon about it for the rest of the review. I thought the timeline was much too short for the amount of emotional intimacy that the characters want and arrive at, especially when this was held up as a reason for conflict. Tess is concerned that Lucas won’t open up to her? He’s known you for four days, woman! He shouldn’t open up to you yet! Boundaries are good for you!

Also, I thought Lucas was a bit too perfect, especially since his Big Flaw is supposed to be that he’s closed off, which, as I just mentioned, is ridiculous coming from Tess, who levels this concern after what, five minutes of acquaintance? This would have been a stronger story if Lucas had had more of his own arc instead of so very often serving as sort of an ideal man to fantasize about.

On the other hand, if you read romance because you want to escape with a perfect being into a perfect place, then the bug becomes a feature, because Lucas is both pretty and perfect and the resort seems just about perfect too.

Shana: You’re right, although I have to admit that when I was reading the book I had the opposite reaction: Lucas yay, resort boo. I was relieved that Lucas had at least one flaw, because I read 40-Love right after finishing a different novel with a sickening perfect hero. That, plus my soft spot for celebrity romances—Lucas is a former tennis star—may have warped my perspective.

Lucas’ version of “closed off” is defaulting to vacuous flirting and charm, a common celebrity trope that I tend to enjoy. I thought he walked an interesting edge between being sex-positive and using his playboy persona to emotionally protect himself from clients who want to sleep with a famous person.

Carrie: Oh, that’s a really good point. He definitely has to tread a line between “fun sex is fun” and “everybody wants something from me.” That’s part of why I don’t think him being closed off is a personality flaw – it makes sense as a strategy to be nice to everyone but not to jump instantly into vulnerability.

Shana: On the other hand, I struggled with the resort as a site of luxury, because August in Florida’s humidity will make you long for the cooler breezes of hell. Satan’s tit, it sounded hot! Much of the courtship happens outside, and the book didn’t shy away from explaining how sweaty and uncomfortable Tess and Lucas were. Descriptors like “every breath felt like gargling soup” are used. Of course, all that sweat means lots of sexy shower time and refreshing beach dips, so I forgave the book for burning phrases like “Eau de sweaty balls” into my brain.

Carrie: I liked that they both had chronic pain but different kinds and for different reasons – she’s middle-aged and has arthritis in her knee, and he’s a young, fit athlete who has sports-related problems with his wrists.

Shana, you got me to read this book by telling me about the scene in which Tess has to decide whether or not she can climb up, and, worse, down, a shit-ton of stairs and you were not wrong – it was like looking into my own brain. Extra points for the understanding that with bad knees, down is usually worse than up.

Shana: Isn’t the chronic pain rep in 40-Love stellar? Lucas and Tess are both proud and self-protective, and hate acknowledging their pain. I loved seeing them slowly learn to trust each other with their tender places, like when Tess teaches herself wrist massage, or when Mr Perfect Lucas chooses sex positions based on Tess’s neck and knee pain.

Carrie: These are both lovable characters with believable personalities. Even though I thought the development of their romance happened super fast, I liked the steps that it hit along the way and how it resolved into a really mature, healthy relationship with a realistic sense of commitment balanced with an understanding that they still have to learn how well they get along post-vacation time.

I especially loved how Tess’s period became an opportunity to demonstrate:

  • period positivity: Tess’s period is miserable, but nobody gets all weird about it, because it’s a normal thing that happens.
  • self care: Tess sets boundaries for what she wants to do, sexually and otherwise, during her period.
  • caring for others: Lucas provides a hilarious yet perfect replacement for a heating pad, as well as chocolate, air conditioning, and a romantic comedy on TV.
  • consent: everything they do, sexual and otherwise, is framed by mutual check ins on how they are both feeling and what works for them.

Shana: I loved that too! I was happy that Tess had an unusually long two week vacation—by sad American standards—which gave the relationship a little more time to develop from Lucas reflexively flirting with a nonplussed Tess, to banter over tennis lessons, and finally to deeper intimacy about fears and insecurities. A terrible academic ex is involved. Don’t we all have a terrible Academic at the root of our self-doubt?

I was worried their tennis lessons would turn into a terrifying training montage, but Tess’s unapologetic disinterest in tennis technique squashed those fears. I was thrilled that Lucas loved tennis but accepted Tess’s unwillingness to run for the ball. And conversely, I was delighted that Tess got turned on by Lucas’s precision and skill, without feeling any pressure to be more than a disinterested novice herself. Very refreshing!

I also adored that Lucas‘s “craggy” face was beautiful, but sun-damaged enough to make him read as older. That’s what happens when you train nonstop in the sun if you aren’t one of the Williams sisters! He handles his skin in the same way that Tess handles her body size, aware that other people see it as a flaw, but choosing to live life with no fucks to give. There’s a fun scene where he visits the resort spa for the aforementioned period supplies, and the spa staff are nearly too distracted trying to sell him face peels to help him properly.

Both Tess and Lucas are passionate about their work. I could see 40-Love working for readers who love competence porn, non-creepy age-gap romances, and grumpy-sunshine pairings where the heroine is the grumpy older character.

Carrie: Agreed! There was no power imbalance, a lot of fun tropes, terrific examples of consent and very sexy sex, and a good mix of fantasy and reality. These are two people who clearly love each other for the people they really are. I also loved their plan for what to do when vacation ends, and I won’t spoil it but the last scene is sweet, hilarious, and adorable.

This was just a sweet, fun, sexy book that provided escapist fun while also demonstrating that you are the only person who gets to define what success means for you, and that love can come to all of us regardless of our tennis playing abilities.

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