The course of true love does not run smoothly in Rachel Gibson's newest novel, Any Man of Mine. Pro hockey player Sam LeClaire broke Autumn Haven’s heart when he left abruptly the morning after their quickie Vegas wedding. But their resulting child, Conner, is not an obligation that Sam is willing to walk away from, despite the fact that Autumn wants nothing to do with Sam. Will five years of growing up help these divorced parents bridge the difference between “I don’t” and “I do”?
Whitney: I am notorious around here for my love of Rachel Gibson. She is one of my favorite contemporary romance authors, up there with Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Crusie and Susan Andersen. So when I saw this was releasing, I pretty much demanded we read it!
Morgan: And while I have never read a Gibson before, I couldn’t wait to dive in as soon as I heard this was a sports-themed romance. Ever since SEP’s Chicago Stars series, I have loved these kinds of books. And I thought Gibson did a fantastic job with the scenes on the ice. The guys talking smack, the fights, the pure male testosterone. Good times.
Whitney: So true, nothing better than a group of alpha males being alpha males. And I’m pretty sure that it’s a law of nature that everything is better on ice! I’ve become a really big hockey fan, but even before that transformation, I enjoyed how romances about sports make them really accessible to me, where I might otherwise feel like “oh there go some guys on a thing with a thing trying to show that they are the best!” And as a hockey fan I got to enjoy the talk of penalties, sin bins and that fabulously written (but so sad to read) scene where Sam ends up benched for part of the season with a broken bone.
Morgan: I loved the characters’ reactions to Sam’s broken clavicle. For Sam it is an annoyance because it will keep him from playing. And of course Conner freaks out when his dad gets hurt. But for Autumn the incident really drives home how violent hockey can be. She is still upset with Sam, but when he gets hurt, she can’t help but hurt with him. It is this complexity that makes Autumn such a three-dimensional character.
Whitney: Gibson always excels at her heroines. These gals don’t put up with the ridiculousness that her heroes con everyone else with. And if that’s not a quality life goal, I don’t know what is!
Morgan: Autumn’s just got too much going on to let Sam get away with his ridiculous behavior. She is busy running a business and raising a son. But it is also nice to see that while she can be strong when necessary, Autumn also has a softer side as well.
Whitney: Like Sears! But no really, Autumn is a fabulous heroine. And for all that she goes through, she manages to retain her core principles, like a belief in happily ever afters, and an unwavering dedication to putting Conner first. This definitely made her more sympathetic than Sam at the beginning of the story!
Morgan: Totally. I mean it is hard to side with a guy who (admittedly) treats women so horribly. Just look what he did to Autumn.
“... he’d met a redheaded girl in a bar and married her a few days later, and the next morning he’d left her behind at Caesars like a used bath towel.”
Whitney: I think everyone who picks up this novel will spend the first few chapters wondering what is going on with Sam. But this is not a one-way street of blame.
Morgan: Agreed. Autumn is also culpable; she began her relationship with Sam as a lark, as a way to have a good time after a very difficult year.
“... someday, when she was old and barely able to scoot her walker down the hall of some nursing home, she would remember her wild week in Vegas with a gorgeous hockey player.”
And if they both just stuck with the holiday fling, neither would have been hurt. But when Sam proposes and they get married, then he disappears - Autumn definitely has the right to be mad.
Whitney: So true, I would be absolutely furious. But a big difference between Autumn and me is that I’d have a really hard time not going after my runaway husband to tell him exactly what I thought of his actions! But not Autumn, she’s much more calm and collected.
Morgan: Maybe even a bit too calm and collected sometimes. After she finds out she is pregnant, she shuts everyone out. This is the scariest and loneliest time in her life, but she keeps everything bottled in. This is just the beginning of her repressing her feelings. After Conner is born she adopts a “man repellent” aura that screams, “keep away”.
Whitney: But it’s not like Autumn is hiding her strength, she’s a MOM: Mama-ona-Mission! I was particularly impressed by the way that she goes on to make sure that she and Conner will be financially secure even if they don’t have Sam’s money. I thought that that was extremely commendable. I mean Sam makes enough money available for her to just sit back and live a life of (almost) luxury, but Autumn doesn’t take hand-outs, she’s a working mom and plans to stay that way.
Morgan: OK, so you have this very sympathetic single mom struggling to raise her son and an absentee father whose idea of a good time is hooking up with hot chicks in bars. Some readers may look at this plot and wonder how Gibson is going to turn it all around and make us believe that Sam is a hero.
Whitney: But she does it triumphantly, by showing us Sam’s motivations! He’s got some pretty serious baggage and after learning about Sam’s backstory, even if you still think that what he did was awful, it’s really hard to dislike him. For me, a big part of this was because although Sam doesn’t really see Conner too much, he genuinely doesn’t think Conner really wants to see more of his dad.
Morgan: He has got to know! I mean Sam grew up with a career-obsessed father. He knows how much it hurts to not have a devoted dad and yet for the past five years, Sam has made no effort to be a part of Conner’s life. Sam would make plans with Conner then cancel to hang out with his buddies.
Whitney: Awful, it’s true a guy should never blow off his son to hang out with busty supermodels or get ridiculous with his friends. But I have two things that speak to Sam’s credit. One, before he's five years old it’s not like Conner can really express what his father's absence means to him. And point two in Sam’s defense, he thinks Autumn has it covered. And she’s made it pretty clear that she doesn’t want to spend time with him — they both see how much it hurts Conner when they fight so they have an unspoken agreement to stay apart.
Morgan: Their fights do get pretty bad. And they all stem from lack of communication. Sam thinks that Autumn blows hot and cold. One minute they will be having a good time then she will get upset. And the funny thing was that during these arguments, I saw both sides. Sam is confused because he thinks Autumn is getting mad for no reason, but Autumn has genuinely had her buttons pushed by Sam. Just because he doesn’t (or can’t) see what’s going on, doesn't mean it is not real for her.
Whitney: Yeah, Gibson did a great job with their fights. And I think that in Sam’s case, to what extent can you control people’s reactions if you don’t understand what is causing them to get upset or act hot and cold?
Morgan: A lot of Sam’s confusion about communication is reinforced by the type of women that he has been hanging out with. He is used to bimbos hooking up with him for his status and celebrity. But Autumn doesn’t want to impress him or play games. When she is hurt, she shows it. When he is being a jerk, she lets him know. She is authentic, which is something Sam doesn’t get with the Playmates or the supermodels that he normally sleeps with.
Whitney: He says right at the start of the book, “There’s nothing wrong with being superficial. Nothing wrong with living on the surface and avoiding lapses into deep thought. It made life easier.” And I think that it quickly becomes clear that he’s been living on the surface so he doesn’t have to deal with the more real things. And “fake” girlfriends are part of the package. It’s clear that in the beginning Sam is not ready to delve into that deeper territory, and has been able to (with the exception of Conner and Autumn) skate by, pun intended, the difficulties and expectations that come with being an adult.
Morgan: Both Sam and Autumn have A LOT of baggage and a lot of things to work through. Autumn, Sam and the reader spend a lot of time in the past. His past, her past, their time in Vegas.
Whitney: I was a big fan of the way that we don’t get all of Vegas in a single flashback. I mean, so much was happening there, for both Autumn and Sam, that I think if we got it all in one scene we’d really being losing out. It takes seeing that weekend five years ago from both people’s perspectives through the lens of what they are going through at different parts of the story, as they both open up and change.
Morgan: I really like the growth that both characters go through. And it doesn’t just happen overnight. The story takes time for Sam and Autumn to come to terms with each other and what they want. No sudden realizations, but a slow creep into forgiveness and accepting that they both need their family.
Whitney: Speaking of family … over the course of the book I became more than a little bit obsessed with Autumn’s older brother Vince. He’s ex-Navy SEAL, extremely protective and has found himself on the wrong side of the law more than once. He’s the perfect meld of bad boy and protector hero, and I need, no crave, his story!
Morgan: Well, since it will be a while, we are just going to have to make do with our next Dish about another tight-knit family — Sarah MacLean’s Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart!
Next week we will be at Book Expo America, so you’ve got two weeks to pick up your own copy of the book we will be Dishing about. We will be going back to Regency England for Sarah MacLean’s Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart, which is in stores now!