Posted in Books

“When Sparks Fly” by Helena Hunting

I really enjoyed Helena Hunting’s 2019 release Meet Cute, so I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, it’s a hot mess. The premise is strong, and it has a lot of fun tropes, but the book has so many problems that this review will mostly be a litany of my complaints. When Sparks Fly is pretty disappointing, especially if you get excited about a good friends-to-lovers slow burn.

The book starts out with Avery Sparks living with her best friend Declan platonically. They have been close since college, but their bond solidified after Declan took Avery’s side in a terrible breakup. Avery works for her family’s hotel and event space, and is very proud of her work. She’s also an avid sportswoman and super active. Declan is in finance, and also very into sports. They share a condo and a friend group, but they’ve never been romantically involved. While Avery certainly knows Declan is attractive, he’s a commitment-phobe and she’s seen him break a lot of hearts. Their relationship becomes a lot more intense when he takes care of her following a car accident that leaves Avery partially immobilized and in need of a lot of help. They give in to mutual attraction, but Declan’s baggage might scuttle their happily every after.

There are a lot of issues with this book, but I do love the premise. I love friends to lovers, sickbed, and forced proximity, and I think there are a lot of themes that really could have worked if they were given space to breathe. The problem is that this book wasn’t finished. Reading closely, there are a lot of dropped threads, and the story really needed to go through a few more drafts before reaching its final form. I really liked the ground laid for Avery being too into her work. Being such a driven person could have been tied to the loss of her parents, or a desire to make her grandma proud, or even just a need for stability. But we never see how or why she develops better work-life balance, nor is the problem really interrogated. There is a point at the end where it could have been addressed, but it just doesn’t happen. I also really enjoyed the vibe that was attempted with the mostly male friend group, but unfortunately this too was a victim of underdevelopment. The two male friends and Avery’s sisters are all basically interchangeable, with so few traits assigned to them you could have basically removed one of each.

Then, there are the points where one simply cannot suspend disbelief. Am I supposed to believe that 1) someone brought pot cookies to a gathering with an invalid and 2) she ate all of them soundlessly and quickly, without one of three other people seeing her? The whole “getting stoned and doing something regrettable” is such a cliche, and it’s not a good one. Frankly, this should have been cut in the first draft.

I also just don’t buy that no one else works at the damn hotel. Three people cannot run an entire hotel and event space, it is simply not possible. A small bed and breakfast? Sure. Not a fancy hotel that caters to large gatherings. Also, the manufactured money problems are a joke. If the venue has been open for three generations, I don’t buy that there’s no savings or slush fund to get them out of a small financial quagmire. If Hunting wanted to set up money troubles, we needed more context. Like, their grandmother had been struggling for a few years, or there was some kind of huge damage to the property that drained them. Also, where does their grandmother go? She is supposedly on a retirement trip to Italy, but it’s mentioned offhandedly that Avery wants to fix up a fountain for her return. And she’s just never mentioned again? This is something that could have been caught in another round of edits. If the grandmother just needed to be out of the way without having another tragic death, she could have just retired and moved to Florida for part of the year. Avery’s sisters are woefully underwritten, basically just serving as plot devices.

A huge component of the book is that both characters have a Tragic Backstory. Avery lost both of her parents as a teenager, and Declan’s parents had a toxic relationship that soured him on love and commitment. However, despite some mentions of Avery’s trauma, she never really talks to Declan about her parents, and we don’t see how their deaths drives her or changed her life too much, except in one or two small ways. If you’re going to have Dead Parents as a trope, you need to justify it. It just comes off that the parents needed to be out of the way, and that’s pretty lazy. If the effects of their deaths had been expanded upon, it could have been a great way to characterize and distinguish the two sisters, so this is a huge missed opportunity.

Declan’s trauma really drives the story, and it’s his issues that cause the third act breakup. Declan, in a moment of jealous rage fueled by his parental issues, treats Avery like trash, and doesn’t give her a moment to diffuse the situation. He’s clearly having a trauma trigger response, and neither of them have the tools to deal with it. I’m not mad about this plot twist, but the execution frustrated me. After, Avery is basically super understanding and Declan ices her out. Then, he eventually gets on his feet, and she wants to forgive him instantly and be together. Still, he keeps distance between them so that he doesn’t just use sex to resolve their relationship problems, and Avery just waits for him???? They carry on a long-distance friendship for a while, which seems needless, but okay. Then, he does a grand gesture and they get back together, and we get a proposal epilogue. Thanks, I hate it. Declan does off-page therapy and he just deserves her forgiveness? NO. Just because you understand why someone did something shitty doesn’t mean it never happened. This really rings false.

One of the main structural issues of this story was the dual points of view- if you’re going to have both, it needs to add something. We kept getting the same thing from both characters. “I shouldn’t want him, but this increased proximity is making me see him differently.” “She’s my best friend, and she needs me right now, but my hormones are taking over and I need to stop wanting her.” It adds nothing- if you took out the Declan chapters, I’m pretty sure you’d still have the same basic story. Plus, after the third act breakup, we get almost no Declan, I assume to keep the suspense alive and help smooth the happy ending, but it does the opposite. It feels so uneven. Declan does all of this growing off-page, and so it feels unearned and kind of rushed. The end is pretty lackluster overall, but this really contributed to the problem.

There are also just a few little things that annoyed me. In a better book, I would have let them roll off my back, but this was bad. Avery is Not Like Other Girls, being sporty and rejecting a lot of traditional femininity. I don’t like that Declan only really realizes he’s attracted to her when she wears revealing, feminine clothing- workout clothes can be very sexy! And being sexy and being feminine are not the same! There are also a lot of gendered assumptions in the book, like “men this, women that” which rubbed me the wrong way. I also rolled my eyes reading some of the traits assigned to Avery. She prefers male friends because they’re chill? Sure, Jan. I also hate the trope of the sporty girl who reluctantly takes on femininity to attract men. I don’t buy AT ALL that it took Declan seeing her in a dress to make him jealous. I’m just not a fan of female characters taking on affects that make them uncomfortable uncritically, I like seeing them empowered in their own skin, at least by the end of the book.

If you read the 75% of the book, you probably wouldn’t notice the plot holes as much, but after that point it deteriorates pretty quickly into just a plot swamp. Hunting is a strong writer, and I have no problem with her prose, this book is just a hot mess in terms of plot and character, which are kind of important.