HelenKay: The basic category romance idea of the virgin and the millionaire is at the heart of When the Lights Go Down. A shy woman looking only for a night of fun finds the man of her dreams. Here, the promised happily ever after is delivered with charm, but not much in the way of conflict or punch.
Gwen Thompson is a virgin librarian with a dull wardrobe and a solitary life. When Gwen turns thirty-one, she decides it’s time to lose that pesky innocence. To do so, she dumps the wardrobe and lies about her job, proving once again that an attractive but backward woman can only dispose of her virginity if she buys a sexy new dress.
Gwen walks into the Georgetown nightclub, The Hot Spot, and into the hands of Mr. You’ve Got To Be Kidding. Lucky for her, Ethan Banks owns said nightclub and is watching and available for rescue. Soon, rescue turns to lovemaking when Ethan takes Gwen to his home and divests her of the aforementioned virginity. Ethan wakes a changed man. Gwen isn’t his usual bimbo type, but she speaks to something in him. He also wakes up alone. In a moment of romance novel panic, Gwen has fled and returned to her old wardrobe, old life and old job. Through a "look there she is walking on the street" moment, Ethan tracks Gwen down. The remainder of the book is spent in a how-can-I-tell-him-who-I-really-am spiral.
Despite hints and talk of his shallow one-night-stand existence, Ethan is likable and decent. He is attractive in a cute and fuzzy kind of way in his pursuit of Gwen. However, the sharp change from playboy to a man seeking long-term commitment is hard to understand. A difficult divorce in Ethan’s past helps to explain part of his motivation in who he was before Gwen. It is the leap to who he is after one night with Gwen that is left largely unexplained.
As a heroine, Gwen is charming and sweet. She is smitten with Ethan almost from the start but fearful that he could never care about a woman like her. She suffers from a common romance novel affliction of being attractive but not knowing it. She hides her looks under dull clothing for reasons that are never completely clear, but may have something to do with protective parents. Throughout the course of the book there is little growth in Gwen’s character in terms of self-assurance or anything else.
One of the downfalls of When the Lights Go Down comes in the lack of true conflict and what we’ve come to think of as the requisite "black moment" – that time near the end of the story where it looks like the parties’ conflict is insurmountable. There is a low level of conflict here but it is more on the level of a misunderstanding than true conflict. Without these necessary elements, the story feels incomplete.
Despite its flaws, When the Lights Go Down is enjoyable. It is a fast paced, easy read. Even though the pages flip by and do so in a way that’s fun and interesting, there is a general sense at the end of the book that nothing much has happened. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. The lack of grounded conflict and character growth hold this book back from being as good as it could be.
Wendy: Gwen Thompson, the thirty-one year old heroine of Heidi Betts’ When the Lights Go Down, is a virgin. She is also a Georgetown librarian with a wardrobe she finds boring and collection of ceramic kittens scattered about her apartment. While everyone on the earth begins life as a virgin, the overwhelming majority of people do not reach the ripe old age of thirty-one with their virginity in tact. So why has Gwen? Did she grow up in an underground bomb shelter oblivious to the lack of nuclear winter above ground? No. Did she leave her parents’ home at eighteen to enter a convent? No. Has she spent the last twelve years in a coma? No, again. So what possible reason, save social retardation, is there for the lack of sex in Gwen’s life? Well, her parents were overly protective, Gwen really likes to read, and she’d never met a man that made her go weak in the knees.
Gwen’s virginity is an unfortunate and dated choice for a contemporary—even category—romance. It’s also a choice Betts need not have made.
When Gwen awakes on her thirty-first birthday she decides her life needs a shake up. She needs a new ‘do, some new clothes, and she needs to get laid. Happy Birthday to her. Gwen decides thirty-one years is plenty long enough to go without sex. She could just as easily woken up and said, “My fantasy is to walk into a bar alone and walk out with a man,” or “I’d like to have anonymous sex tonight,” or “I’m going on a man hunt,” any of which would have propelled the story in the same direction without dragging out the virgin construct. But this is not to be.
After Gwen’s transformation from mild-mannered-librarian to exciting-ready-for-sex-woman-on-the-town, she meets Ethan Banks. Ethan owns the hottest club in Georgetown, The Hot Spot, and steps in just as Gwen agrees to leave the club with a sleazy regular. There’s just something about Gwen sitting at his bar and looking like she belongs, yet different from every other woman who sidles up, that brings all of Ethan’s protective instincts welling to the surface. When Gwen says she’d like to go to his place, Ethan is too intrigued to do anything but comply.
To Betts’ credit she does not saddle Gwen with virginity and complete sexual ignorance. Thus avoiding the “that will never fit,” “why do you want to touch me there,” and general lack of profundity virgin heroines are famous for. Like, the thousands of inexperienced heroines that came before her, Gwen takes to sex quickly, never makes a wrong move, and is the hottest, sexiest bed partner Ethan has ever encountered simply by virtue of being Gwen.
With her birthday wish fulfilled, the plot boils down to Gwen slipping from Ethan’s bed before he can awake and discover that she is a mousy, boring, librarian. Ethan is, of course, too enthralled with Gwen to let their evening pass as a one night stand and vows to find her. There’s just something about her that motivates him to not forget her, to want to be with her again. As motivation goes, it’s an empty trick, the equivalent of answering a why question with: just ‘cause.
Ethan pursues Gwen, just ‘cause, and when he finds her, Gwen decides to pretend to be the person she believes Ethan thinks she is: a wild, sexy, woman of the world. Buying into clothes make the man, Gwen confuses a set of clothes with a set of personality traits and believes dressing sexy will hide the boring truth from Ethan.
Betts hinges the remaining story conflict on Gwen’s lies and projections. It’s conflict that could be resolved with a conversation, but as Ethan see through to the real Gwen from the start this is inconsequential.
When the Lights Go Down is not without its charms. Watching Gwen and Alex come together and fall in love—while familiar—is still enjoyable. Betts deviates from the traditional hero and heroine category archetypes just enough to bring a freshness to her tale that makes for fun reading. When the Lights Go Down does fall back on paradigms, but the tone gives the read a buoyancy that never feels staid.
Wendy’s Response to HelenKay:
HelenKay’s Response to Wendy: Certainly, not all category romances are created equal. Some lines are stronger than others and some authors have a greater command of the genre. To me, category romance is perfect for a quick afternoon read. I don’t expect much in terms of breaking new ground. Don’t want to be taught a lesson or have to think too much. I expect certain constructs like virgins, cowboys and millionaires and, in this context, would be disappointed if I didn’t see them. At base, category romance falls into the "comfort food" zone, where I consume it for satisfaction, enjoy it while I have it, then want something else soon after. The problem, of course, is that it’s easy to get my fill. When I do, I have to walk away and not read any category romance for a period of time. When I come back, I can read the usual fare and enjoy. Then, I step away again annd the cycle continues.
While this may sound bad or critical, I’m not sure it is. There is a solid place for well-done category romance. Having quick and easy, in-and-out reads available is a good thing. But, when the books start to sound the same or, worse, read as if the author took shortcuts because she was "just" writing category, everyone loses. Just because the books are shorter and follow tighter requirements about what should and should not be included isn’t an excuse for poor craft.
HelenKay’s Final Thought: When the Lights Go Down is cute but never rises above a "it’s okay for one of those books" level. Betts’ voice is warm and worth a look, but those who aren’t keen on category romance might want to pass by this one and try another Betts’ offering in hopes of finding a stronger plot to go with her otherwise enjoyable voice.
Wendy’s Final Thought: When the Lights Go Down stumbles as only romance can with the no-good-reason-to-be-a-virgin-and-over-thirty can, but Gwen and Alex are enjoyable. Recommended with some reservation.