Reviewed: February 15, 2011
Genre: Contemporary Romance, Light/Comedic Romance, Sports Romance
Series: Chicago Stars, Book 1
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Length: 384 Pages
Formats: Print, eBook
A surprise amendment to her father's will leaves Manhattan bombshell Phoebe Somerville ownership of the Chicago Stars football team. She thought she's long been disinherited and was thrilled by the will, seeing it as proof that her father did love her after all...until the vicious, controlling codicil gives her one season to win the AFC Championship and demands she stop being such an unrelieved screw up. If she fails, the team will be handed off to her slimy bastard of a cousin, a man who, as a boy, made Phoebe's life miserable. Refusing to give in to her father's manipulations, even in death, she blows off the whole idea and heads off on vacation, submerging herself in the artistic world to which she had fled when her father had betrayed her in the worst way years ago.
Finding the head coach of the Stars in her living room a few days after her return, however, wasn't something she had anticipated. Dan Calebow makes her nervous and strips her of her vaunted control. He's large, intimidating, and forbidding, and something about him does weird things to her stomach. His condescending derision, on the other hand, does something else entirely to her temper.
She's the biggest bimbo that he's ever met, but Phoebe Somerville sure was a looker. Pity that she was so useless as an owner and was technically his boss. He had players with unsigned contracts and a team to coach, he didn't have time to play her games. He needed her back in Chicago immediately. Once there, he could set her up as a brainless figurehead and get on doing the job he loved.
Problem was, Phoebe's anything but brainless, and the bimbo act is a shield she uses to protect herself. After years of insecurity with men, and a childhood of trauma and neglect, she has honed herself into being exactly what she needs to be to get what she wants. It isn't until she returns to Chicago and starts to take up the reins of the team that she realizes she wants to be the one thing her father never thought she could be. A smashing success. If that means she has to kick the patootie of one supercilious head coach, well...surely they make helmets or something for that.
Sparks fly and quips are traded with witty alacrity in this sports romance romp, the first of the Chicago Stars series. With a rather astounding level of character definition and tragic backstory that tugs at the heartstrings, this is a light romance with deep, dark undertones and was doubly satisfying for it. I loved Phoebe. More than that, I admired her. She's a survivor, and while her survival instincts may be dressed up in inappropriate gold lame at times, or wrapped up like a bow on her poodle's topknot, they're exceptionally adept at keeping her afloat. She has a truly tender and kind heart, and her intelligence is keen, especially when she truly starts using it.
Dan was a little harder to peg. He's drawn to Phoebe, but doesn't see much beyond her bodacious bod at first, and there was a sex scene towards the beginning of the book (not with Phoebe) that I found deeply disturbing until his partner was identified. Even after that scene I found his relationship with his ex to be a bit distasteful, and the manner in which he so clinically decides to marry a woman just because she's good with kids didn't enamor him to me, either. I did eventually warm up to him, and he does show a far wider range of emotion and intellect through the book, but it was a bit of a rough start for me with him.
The push-pull between him and Phoebe, though, was straight up, classic, awesome romance fun wrapped around a very complex consortium of character issues and insecurities. I have to give Susan Eliabeth Phillips credit, she created fully realized and very human characters on all levels, including secondary and ancillary characters, that filled up and filled out this book superbly, giving it much more depth and a far more meaty plot than I was anticipating.
There were a few spots that seemed a bit formulaic (it's an HEA romance, though, it wasn't like I wasn't expecting that) and the major relationship conflicts could be seen coming from across the stadium and were, in my opinion, the least elegant aspects of the storyline, but nothing was a major detractor. In fact, it was one of the most satisfying and comprehensive contemporary romances I've read lately.
I was particularly pleased with the subplot about the evolution of the relationship Phoebe has with her half sister, and the nifty ways Dan factored into that. I was also pleasantly surprised with how SEP addressed Phoebe's rape at the age of eighteen, and how realistically that assault was integrated into Phoebe's psyche and personality. The moment that Phoebe shared that trauma with Dan was a very good moment for me in the book, for a lot of reasons that are hard to explain, but touch on my appreciation for honest relationship conversation and trust. And I loved absolutely everything about Dan's actions and reactions to the whole of his knowledge of that rape from that point to the very end.
I did have a few issues with the book. I could have done without the crazy stalker subplot, I feel it did too little to expand or assist in adding insight into Dan's past and it seemed too hokey a plot device at the end to be a credible threat. Snippets throughout the book shined a glaring spotlight on its 1994 original publishing date (O.J. Simpson being mentioned as a sports correspondent, not a defendant was particularly telling). Dan's ex-wife served little purpose beyond being an excuse for a very emotional scene between Dan and Phoebe...and for the total gross out factor of that initial sex scene.
On the other hand, I was highly impressed with the taut play-by-play of the AFC Championship game. It was very well written - informative, tense, emotional, but not so detailed as to make your eyes cross. Admittedly, I'm a rabid football fan, and I have been since childhood. I know football. I even follow my team's off-season personnel and contract stories religiously. It was pretty much guaranteed that I wasn't going to be bored or disinterested with the level of the sports detail in this book. That being said, I'd like to think that I'm objective enough to assure those who aren't football fans that there wasn't a ton of it in the book, and certainly nothing I would consider a major detractor for those who don't like the sport.
It Had to Be You is, at its core, the story of two damaged and emotionally fragile people finding each other in the least likely of places, and realizing that despite appearances and regardless of propriety, they're perfect for each other. And in getting there, it was the Superbowl of delicious, deep, thrilling, emotional journeys, ripe with fully realized and sympathetic characters that resonate with a sense of genuine triumph.
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