I enjoyed Essex’s 2013 release, Back to the Good Fortune Diner, so when Brie tweeted about In Her Corner earlier this week it didn’t take much for me to decide to buy the book. I’m not the biggest fan of romances featuring MMA fighters as it’s hard to reconcile HEA with images like Georges St-Pierre after his last fight, but an MMA fighter heroine was like catnip to me. I didn’t dislike the book, but I had some problems with the plotting and some portrayals of marginalized characters. Stop here if you don’t like spoilers.
The first time gym manager Kyle Peters sees Brazilian MMA fighter Bella Fiore, he mistakes her for a guy. Part of the way through yelling at the bicyclist weaving dangerously through New Orleans traffic he realizes that the guy who nearly scratched his car – and nobody touches his car – was actually a particularly fit woman. When the woman collects her water bottle then proceeds to follow him to work, he figures out that she’s not just any woman, she’s the woman from the Brazilian family that’s basically MMA royalty who he’s supposed to work with and help train in wrestling technique. Not a man who likes to be thrown of his routine, Kyle takes the rough morning about as poorly as he could, leaving Bella a bit less than enthusiastic about their arrangement. Still, three-time Olympic gold medalist Kyle is who she wants to work with, especially when her family all but rejected her for wanting to seriously pursue fighting as a career, so she decides to tough it out and see where it leads.
Oh man, how I wanted to love this book. Bella is a fabulous character. She’s forthright, driven and tough as nails but knows when she needs to back up and apologize or compromise to work with someone. Essex does a great job of creating a strong woman who isn’t a superwoman. Bella makes mistakes and has vulnerabilities but she solves her own problems. She leans on and values her friends and family, Kyle included, but she knows what she wants and intends to do whatever it takes to get it. She’s the perfect match for the troubled man Kyle is. While he has his competencies – he’s an elite-level coach managing a successful MMA gym, after all – he’s not in a good place in his life. He can offer Bella support as an MMA professional, but he needs her help and support emotionally.
I loved their slow-burning romance. There’s no insta-lust, they butt heads in a not at all flirtatious way early on in the book, and their first attempt to hook up is halfway into the book and ends up being an awkward false start where Bella finds out about what his ex did to him. If you’re a fan of unresolved sexual tension, this book has it in spades. They dance around each other, first building a professional relationship, then a friendly one, and only after sharing the hidden parts of themselves do they act on their desires. It’s a relationship I can see lasting for the long haul.
Perhaps it’s because I liked the main couple so much that I found the plot so frustrating. There is a lot of plot in this book, and I would have preferred it if Essex cut one or two of the subplots out and fleshed out what remained. As it is, you have Bella training for the first women’s fight on the major MMA circuit, Kyle working through the aftereffects of a rough childhood and a sexual assault perpetrated by an ex-girlfriend, a side plot involving a major fight promoter and the reporter he’s having an affair with, one of the girls from an at-risk group they teach self defense to gets stabbed and Kyle’s sister Jess is a transwoman. If the last one sticks out as not being a plot so much as a character, well, that brings me to my next point. I had problems with how the kids and Kyle’s sister were deployed to add drama and make Kyle and Bella look good. The way Jess was introduced made me kind of uncomfortable.
“So, is Kyle giving it to you hard?” Jess asked.
Kyle’s jaw nearly fell to the floor. Bella startled. Joel laughed.
“I mean, has he been training you hard?” Jess corrected with a violent shake of her head, then laughed. “Woo, where is my brain today? Not connected to my tongue, that’s for sure.” She gave another loud guffaw and slapped Kyle’s shoulder so hard it stung.
“Kyle’s a good coach,” Bella said. “Did you ever get into the family trade?”
“Dad tried, but…well…” She shrugged. “It didn’t stick. I was too busy designing outfits for Kyle’s G.I. Joes.”
“I am so sorry,” Kyle said the moment they started toward his rental car. “Jess is…well, Jess.”
“I thought your sister was cool.”
He hesitated. “You realize she’s…”
She laughed. “I was fairly certain. You forget I’m from Brazil—Carnivale brings out all the drag queens. You’re not embarrassed by her, are you?”
“It’s not like that.” He struggled to explain. “Things have been awkward between us for a while. Jess—back when he was my brother, Jesse—left home when I was fourteen. My parents weren’t very accepting of her…choices. They had a big fight, and then she was dead to my parents. I only talked to her a couple of times before and after the surgeries, but she never came home. Not until Dad’s funeral.”
The line about slapping Kyle’s shoulder seems to illustrate masculine strength, and a guffaw isn’t generally used for women’s laughter. When Bella compared her to a drag queen, I cringed, but the story goes on to basically portray her as one. She’s tall and ultra-feminine and her contribution to the book is to be part of Kyle’s rough relationship with his late father and to outfit Bella in a fabulous dress for a glitzy party. I wanted more substance and less stereotype. She wasn’t a character so much as a convenience.
The same can be said for the group of at-risk kids. They and their real problems existed to show off Kyle and Bella’s heroic qualities. Their interactions with the kids went one-way. It was Kyle and Bella gifting the kids with their magnanimity. Bella gifts a girl named Shawnese with the confidence and technique to fight off an armed attacker and Kyle gives them the gift of beating up the guy who attacked her. It was all kind of bizarre.
“I took all the proper precautions. I told Jerome and his boys not to get involved except to call the cops if things went south. Anyhow, Jerome’s one of the best students in the self-defense class. He doesn’t lose his head. He’s a really good guy. I trusted him to watch my back, and he did.”
“You shouldn’t have involved him at all. You both could’ve been seriously hurt. What if Andre comes after you looking for revenge? What if he presses charges?”
“C’mon, Bella. You think a known pimp is going to go to the cops? You and I both know Shawnese will never press charges. And Andre won’t leave her alone unless he knows she’s got someone on her side. Guys like him prey on vulnerable women. He had to learn she wasn’t his punching bag anymore. If you’d heard the way he talked about her, trust me, you would’ve done the same thing.”
“No, I wouldn’t, because I don’t take the law into my own hands. He could’ve stabbed you.”
“Ain’t nothin’ but a thang,” he said in an affected accent.
Working with troubled youth is more complicated than this. It felt exploitative.
Finally, I didn’t know what to make of that side romance with the reporter and the promoter. At first I thought it was to show me that the promoter holding Bella’s career in his hands was a fool, since he was fancying himself in love with a reporter who covers MMA and obviously she was sleeping with him for insider info. But then it was like I was supposed to see her as a feminist crusader for more women in sports and sports reporting. Then they break up, and the book never addresses that glaring ethical lapse. I don’t even know.
Final Assessment: An unusual heroine for the genre and a compelling romance, but the plot is so much static. C