Samantha Brady’s to-do list is simple . . .
Sell her novel, have a baby and find the man of her dreams — though not necessarily in that order. Trouble is, she has writer’s block, hasn’t had a date in months and lives platonically with her best friend, Jack Turner, the only man who has ever met her Prince Charming criteria.
She and Jack have always avoided romantic entanglements of any kind, especially with each other. No strings. No fuss. No heartaches. Until one night of too much wine and too few inhibitions takes their friendship to a whole new level.
Sam’s to-do list and her life — are turned completely upside down. She’s realized she wouldn’t mind a "string" or two — but is she too late to keep her perfect guy from walking out the door?
Wendy: Harlequin claims their HQN line is single title mainstream romance. However, unlike their Red Dress Ink line, which has successfully shaken off its ties to category romance, Millie Criswell’s No Strings Attached does little to further HQN’s single title aspirations.
Samantha Brady is a single thirty-something aspiring author living in New York with her best friend, real estate investor/agent Jack Turner. Samantha and Jack, who have always known one another (her family fostered him from his own alcoholic home life), watch each other through a parade of relationship bimbos and bastards, all the while functioning for all intents and purposes as a nonsexual married couple.
Samantha’s biological clock—apparently heretofore not set to ring—begins to chime after Samantha baby sits one afternoon. Despite lack of income, or stable career, or any ability to care for even herself, Samantha decides to have a child. And since she also lacks a sex life, she begins the artificial insemination process in hopes of conceiving the child she now believes she’s always wanted. As would happen, the procedures fail; Samantha is left broke and with little hope of pregnancy. Until, that is, a dark and stormy night leaves Jack and Samantha stranded in a no-star hotel with only a bottle of whiskey and a contrived game of spin the bottle to keep them warm. In the aftermath, the emotional upheaval in their relationship is too much for either Samantha or Jack to handle and their friendship dies…and then Samantha discovers she’s pregnant.
No Strings Attached is a character driven, dialog heavy story. When dialog is called on to be the workhorse of a book, it needs to sparkle with depth, clarity and believable ease. Unfortunately, the dialog in No Strings Attached accomplishes none of that. The words are forced, stilted and expository. Here, Samantha has a conversation with her girlfriend Patty:
“I—” Suddenly, a shooting pain seared Samantha’s stomach and she clutched it, her eyes filling with tears.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“I’m…I’m not sure. I’m cramping. Something’s wrong with the baby, I just know it.”
The characters, despite disparate backgrounds, interests and educations, use the same diction, sentence structures and speech patterns making for less than distinct—or in fact, distinguishable—dialog. The following excerpt is well into the book and even at this advanced stage, there’s no clear way from the voice of the dialog to discern who is speaking, Samantha or Jack:
“I was just thinking about Jake and the baby cradle. He’s going to be really put out when we actually put a baby in there. Jake’s had us all to himself these last months, and I’m not sure he’s going to like sharing us with another tiny creature. He thinks he’s the baby of the family.”
“I like the way you say us. It makes me feel like we really are a couple, in all the ways that count.”
“Well, we have been together a long time, that’s for certain, and we certainly have gone through a lot of stuff together.”
The book’s profound reliance on dialog is ironic considering the plot relies on a series of conflicts thin enough to be resolved in a conversation. For example, after discovering she’s pregnant with Jack’s child, Samantha decides to withhold the information from Jack. Her choice creates hollow unsustainable conflict, the sort that can easily be solved with a simple “I’m pregnant.” While this is perhaps in character for Samantha—given the succession of poorly thought out choices she makes throughout the book—the decision does nothing for a story mired in if-they-only-talked-it-out type issues.
Most notably absent from the narrative is setting. The environment the story takes place in is largely ignored. The setting is seldom narrowed from generic descriptors such as: living room, kitchen, and bedroom. Beyond the place identifies the characters might well be talking heads floating in a void, as little is done to ground them in a physical locale.
The plot is a common if clichéd tale of life-long friends who suddenly wake up to their passion and love for one another. Unfortunately, Jack knowing when Samantha’s period is due does not a believable or compelling friendship make; nor does “Aren’t you the least bit curious what kissing each other would be like?” make for convincing passion. Samantha and Jack are surrounded by secondary characters—friends and family of both—whose greatest purpose seems to be fleshing out the page count and creating diversions from Samantha’s and Jack’s paper thin storyline.
No Strings Attached is harmless enough; the writing never manages to transcend the worn plot and as such the characters, their dialog and the wholesale lack of setting make this read the one thing falling in love should never be: unremarkable.
HelenKay: The friends-to-lovers theme is not new in romance writing. As a result, it is easy for a book that relies on this construct to feel stale and boring. With a unique twist, an engaging voice, dialog that zings or pacing that grabs you and doesn’t let go, this basic premise can work. Unfortunately, No Strings Attached lacks any, or maybe all, of those items which would otherwise set it apart or make it special.
Samantha and Jack live together in New York Cit. They grew up together, her family having helped raised Jack by offering him a refuge from his dysfunctional family. Jack runs a successful real estate business. Samantha is a writer struggling to get published. She financially and emotionally relies on Jack for support. They spend a significant amount of time judging each other’s romantic choices and finding them wanting. While everyone who knows them knows they are meant to be together, they do not have a clue. And, with the absence of fire and the limited chemistry between the two, a reader may wonder why the friends and relatives are so sure.
The book opens on a slow note. The first chapter, while it establishes the relationship between the characters, does little to keep a reader turning pages. What follows lacks drive and tempo as well. In the first of a series of cliched events, Samantha moves from the independent no-strings type to desperately wanting a child. This sudden kick of maternal longing appears to arise from babysitting a child one evening. Her change of character is never explained and her motivation is hard to understand. It is hard to imagine Samantha never held a baby before. It is equally incomprehensible that Samantha’s views on something so important change in what feels like a heartbeat.
The plot unravels from here into a series of unsurprising events. Wanting to get pregnant, she can’t. Then one evening leads to too much alcohol which leads to Jack and Samantha moving past friendship to pregnancy which leads to a strain in the friendship. As is the modus operandi in many romances, Samantha then tries to hide the pregnancy. Jack’s reaction is as you’d expect when he finds out. Which is part of the problem with No Strings Attached – everything is expected. The scenario feels contrived rather than smart and new. The subplot involving Samantha’s brother doesn’t add anything to No Strings Attached. Instead, the reader is left to wonder why any woman would want the brother as he bounces back and forth between a good woman who loves him and a flashy one who doesn’t.
The conflict for the balance of the book is nearly non-existent. The book should resolve around page 225. Problem is, it continues for approximately another 150 pages after that point. There is a long and drawn-out game off "you only love me because I’m pregnant" that makes the reader wonder why Jack would want Samantha at all. She fights the attraction for no apparent reason, all while blaming Jack for unknown sins. It is the classic case of knowing the book would end if the parties spent two seconds speaking like normal, rational human beings. Instead, they talk around each other until the dialog is limited to little more than a constant conversation where Jack insists he wants to be a dad and Samantha doesn’t believe him. The lack of any real, identifiable and meaty conflict drags the last half of the book to a near stop.
Criswell has a certain charm to her writing. Samantha’s internal wanderings are, at times, very endearing. But, this genuine warmth and clear love of her characters are not enough to save what is otherwise an overly long and faltering plot with little focus and tired situations.
HelenKay’s Response to Wendy: At first I thought the real problem with this book was that it worked more as a Harlequin category romance with about 100 extra and unnecessary pages thrown in to qualify it as a single-title. Would a severe edit and repositioning of this a category be an answer for this book?
Wendy’s Response to HelenKay: No. Narrowing the plot’s focus to solely Samantha and Jack’s love story wouldn’t change the expository writing or freshen a construct that lacks modernity.
Wendy’s Final Thoughts: No Strings Attached offers nothing new to the friends-to-lovers construct and is further crippled by inherent flaws in the writing. The combination makes for a joyless reading experience. Not recommended.
HelenKay’s Final Thoughts: The nothing-new plot and serious lack of believable and sustainable conflict weaken this book to the point where I lost interest long before the book ended. Not Recommended.