“. . . immensely satisfying reading. . . . a skilfully written contemporary romance with depth, breadth, and, most importantly of all: heart.”
Reuniting high school enemies as potential lovers is not an original storyline—in fact, it may borderline cliché. But those powerful high school feelings, particularly the angst, never really leave us—as adults or as readers. When tapped into, carefully, that angst, mixed with a bit of empathy and a dash of projection, has the makings of a very potent mix.
When Ava and Cade make love, Ava is over the moon. She’s in love for the first time with the best-looking guy at school, and it looks like he feels the same way. She can’t wait to share the news with her two best friends—and see Cade again. Dancing down the hallways, it’s like nothing could ever go wrong.
Of course, then there wouldn’t be a story. Ava’s friends are pleased, but skeptical, and their skepticism is well deserved. Cade isn’t dreaming the same dreams as Ava, and he and his in-crowd friends make sure that she knows it. Publicly. Humiliatingly. And Ava’s excitement fades to hate.
Now it’s more than a decade later. Ava took a long time to put herself back together, to learn to love herself as she is, to put the humiliation behind her. She’s successful, strong, and smokin’ hot—confident and in control. Then Cade comes back in to her life with an offer she can’t refuse. But it doesn’t matter. Things have changed. She’s confident and in control. She can handle a couple of weeks dealing with Cade, especially with the cash he’s going to pony up for her services.
Cade has tried to apologize for his behavior over and over again, but Ava’s never let him get close enough. Now he needs her, and he hopes that his behavior—and the offer of lucrative employment—will say what she’s never wanted to hear with words.
As mentioned, a high school romance gone bad is a relatively common background, particularly in contemporary romance. What makes Playing Dirty transcend the cliché is the characters. Though Ava is humiliated and hurt to the core by Cade’s betrayal, she brazens through, using the wit and intelligence that she will display through the course of the novel. Only after she’s held her own does she let herself break down.
The humiliation is what drives Ava to succeed, but she never gets over it. She can’t let go of what Cade did to her, because Ava still feels like the heavy high school girl who reached too high. Her relationship with her mother hasn’t helped things. And though there have been some very positive influences in her life—including a grandmotherly figure and her two very supportive best friends, Ava still continues to believe the bad, rather than the good.
Ms. Andersen handles this very well. Ava’s low self-esteem could be quite grating, but instead it’s handled deftly, so that Ava becomes every woman, her struggle with her weight a reflection of all our struggles to be “beautiful.” What also works really well is that Ava’s self-confidence only dips in one area: she has things she’s good at, and she knows she’s good at them. This building of a three-dimensional character (instead of focusing only on the “fat” aspect) gives the character a satisfying depth.
In turn, Cade’s growth is also well handled. Andersen never explains away Cade’s behavior (nor does Cade or Ava), but rather displays it as an error in judgement that has since colored his actions. Cade is well aware that he is in the wrong, and he attempts to rectify it in any way he can. But he doesn’t scrape or grovel. He refuses to let a long-ago mistake rob him of his own self-respect, nor let his remorse ruin his future.
Cade is a grown up that Ava wants to treat as a child, and Ava is still in many ways the child that Cade wants to treat as a grown up. Watching the two of them finally reach the same page—and the growth in them both to be able to get there—makes for immensely satisfying reading. Toss in the relationship between Ava and her best friends, and a host of fun secondary characters (including the intriguing Eduardo) and the result is a skilfully written contemporary romance with depth, breadth, and, most importantly of all: heart.