Pairing Off, by Elizabeth Harmon

>> Sunday, August 14, 2016

TITLE: Pairing Off
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Harmon

PAGES: 250
PUBLISHER: Carina Press

SETTING: Contemporary Russia and US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: First in the Red Hot Russians series

American figure skater Carrie Parker's Winter Games dreams were dashed when her philandering partner caused one of the greatest scandals in skating history. Blacklisted from competing in the United States, her career is over…until she receives a mysterious invitation and is paired with the most infuriating, talented—and handsome—skater she's ever met.

Russian champion Anton Belikov knows sacrifice. He gave up a normal life and any hope of a meaningful relationship to pursue his dream. And he's come close—with a silver medal already under his belt, the next stop is the gold. All he needs is a partner. While he's never forgotten the young American skater he seduced one long-ago night in Amsterdam, he never expected to be confronted with their past…never mind share the ice with her.

When what starts as a publicity stunt grows into something real, Carrie and Anton's partnership will test their loyalties to family, country and each other. With only a few months to train for the competition of a lifetime, can they master technique and their emotions, or will they lose their footing and fall victim to the heartaches of their pasts?
Carrie Parker's promising career in pairs figure skating collapsed in a scandal when her arsehole of a partner was caught in bed with a judge. Most people just would not believe she had nothing to do with his transparent attempts at cheating. So when Carrie receives an invitation from a Russian trainer to compete for that country, she decides to accept. She's shocked to discover her prospective partner is Anton Belikov, one of Russia's best, and the man with whom she had a one-night stand several years earlier.

Turns out Anton doesn't recognise Carrie. Even though that night was as earth-shattering for him as it was for her, he was a bit hazy (this happened in Amsterdam, so you can guess what was going on!) and she looked completely different. But even not recognising her, he's always admired Carrie's skating, so when his long-time partner deserted him at the last minute for a partner she felt gave her more of a chance for a medal, he asked his trainer to try to get her as his new partner. After all, it seemed like a bit of a sign that both would be partner-less at the same time.

Carrie's first reaction is to turn around and leave. How can she skate with this man? But she's eventually persuaded to stay, and the work starts.

It's hard. Carrie is initially expected to basically slot into the old partner's slot and just learn the routine that was prepared for Anton and Olga (the previous partner). Problem is, Olga and Carrie are completely different kinds of skaters. Carrie is used to just adapting herself to her partner's preferences (remember, arsehole previous partner), so at first she doesn't complain. But when she and Anton start warming up to each other and actually start talking, their partnership really takes off, both off and on the ice.

I really liked a lot of this book, and a lot of it was down to the setting and setup. Harmon clearly loves Russia. The title of the series, Red Hot Russians, might suggest the sort of icky essentialisation found in so many Harlequin Presents book, where the hero's background (Sicilian! Latino!) serves only as a shorthand way of indicating that he's alpha and macho. This is a much more thoughtful book than that, though, and the setting is much more than a way of screaming "Exotic!". I really can't say how authentic the Russian characters or the setting are, but they felt distinct and vivid, and that was enough for me to enjoy this a hell of a lot.

And I just loved the whole ice skating element, which is a huge part of the book. We get as much of the skating partnership as of the romantic one. I'm not the world's biggest ice skating fan, more the kind that will only watch it when the Winter Olympics are on, but this was just fascinating to me. Again, no idea about the accuracy or verisimilitude, but I loved reading about it.

The romance, unfortunately, while starting out pretty good, didn't quite live up to the rest. The problem was mainly about the characters separately, rather than with how they interacted.

Anton felt a little bit passive, particularly in his relationship with Olga. He's been unhappy with her for years. He mentions he stayed with her after her constant cheating (albeit having agreed on a non-exclusive relationship) because he didn't want to harm their on-ice partnership. Fair enough. But as the present-day section of the book starts, she's dumped her as a skating partner, and he's still travelling to see her every weekend, I'm not quite sure what for. He doesn't even seem to be in it for the sex. He does do the right thing in the end, but I really don't get why he didn't do it much earlier, other than the author wanting to maintain the tension of Carrie thinking Anton is taken.

As for Carrie, she feels a bit naive and almost stupid. She just doesn't get the potential implications of what she's doing, when they really seemed pretty obvious. Her dad is a Southern politician, and his constituents have a little bit of a problem with his daughter pairing up with a Russian skater and (gasp!) taking Russian citizenship. No big surprise. The Cold War might be over, but I can totally see people still having that distrust (my quite right-wing parents, born in the 40s,  still call anyone who's too left-wing for their tastes a "bolche", for bolshevik). So it was obvious that Carrie's actions would have consequences on her father's career, but Carrie just doesn't consider it at all. Even worse, the narrative very clearly takes Carrie's side, implying this is something she couldn't have predicted. Sorry, but no. She really should have known her taking up Russian citizenship was going to go down like a lead balloon with her father's conservative Southern voters, rather than be so terribly surprised. I'm not saying that she shouldn't have done it, just that she should have done it after considering the consequences.

The other issue is that sometimes the book felt a bit rough (it's a debut, and it shows). Mainly this showed in how crudely Harmon created conflict in the second half. There's plenty here that could be really interesting, like cultural differences and the stress of trying to pull off a comeback with the press in both countries against Carrie. Instead, Harmon has Carrie decide that because of her relationship with her dead mother she can't get close to anyone and must therefore push Anton away. It made very little sense to me and was, frankly, a bit tedious. Harmon should have trusted that what she had was more than enough, rather than trying to suddenly introduce this new element right at the end.

All that said, there's a lot of potential here, though. In addition to what I described about the ice skating and the setting, Harmon at times does quite interesting things. For instance, I was initially a bit annoyed at Olga's potrayal... the bitchy other woman who lies, cheats and manipulates. I do think it could have been done a bit more subtly, but then Harmon provides some more layers for her, and she did start making sense as a character and becoming much more interesting. There's loads of little touches like that going on, enough that I'd definitely give this author another chance, and not just because the next book also features ice skating and a Russia setting!



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