Aphrodite’s Workshop for Reluctant Lovers, by Marika Cobbold

I first heard about this book on a blog – can’t remember which one, sadly – and thought it sounded interesting. Interesting enough, at least, to put on my amazon wishlist (which is what I use as a reminder of books that sound interesting. You know, in case I ever run out of books to read). So when it was on one of the display shelves at the newly refurbished local library, I couldn’t resist.

And it is an interesting concept, for sure. Romance novelist turns cynical, Aphrodite and Eros try to help, etc. And I really wish I’d enjoyed it more. I didn’t not enjoy it, but it certainly didn’t live up to my expectations, given the glowing review that had made me put it on the wishlist in the first place.

I liked the main character perfectly well. I was incredibly happy when she walked out on her boyfriend, because he was emotionally abusive and icky. And I completely understand her cynicism about love and romance, since it’s something that I feel quite a lot (and I’m only 29).

But. The more I think about it, the less works.

The ending was absolutely the weakest part of the book. All of the character development, all of the story wrapped up in a “here’s what happened” epilogue. And the love story itself boils down to Cupid’s – sorry, Eros’s – arrow. Why do they love each other? Because Eros shot them at the right time. It’s the equivalent of the fairy godmother waving her wand, and it’s such a cop-out.

And the most frustrating part of the ending is that it doesn’t resolve any of the questions that the book poses, which are good, valid questions about the nature of romance and its place in modern life. The book is filled with valid cynicism about romance, the emphasis put on romance to the detriment of love and partnership, and the role and responsibility that romantic, escapist fiction plays in the world. These are perfectly good questions that deserve to be looked at. But all of the cynical doubts are resolved off-stage through a deus ex machine that’s not even seen, only reported.

It left me feeling hollow and disappointed. Yes, there was a happy ending in the traditional romance way (a wedding), but there was no resolution. And resolution is more important than a stock ending. The perfect ending is not the only reason that people (me) read romances. It’s nice, sure, but even more important than the perfect ending is the feeling that the happy ending is possible. That the problems will be overcome. And it’s not about the fact that there’s a wedding as much as the fact that there’s a relationship. There was no relationship in this book, at least not one to hope for. We weren’t given a picture of any relationship other than cynicism; we weren’t given any evidence to support the idea of “this time it will be different” at the end.

If the ending had been good, or at least satisfying, I could have overlooked some of my annoyances in the rest of the book. But since the ending didn’t resolve any of them, I have to wonder why they were there at all. Aphrodite’s behavior as a “therapist” completely mocked the seriousness of both main character’s mental conditions (he has OCD, she has hallucinations that worry and upset her). It may have been intended as comic relief, but it didn’t work. The mental problems of the characters were never resolved either. The hallucinations just sort of appear, probably as a shorthand for “my life is falling apart”, but since they’re neither taken seriously by anyone other than the main character who’s having them, nor resolved, they serve no purpose. (And why can’t a woman be dissatisfied with her romantic relationship and romance in general without seeming to go mad?) There’s also the ridiculous and unfair way that Rebecca is treated as the relationship guru, especially by her goddaughter. Seriously, this girl bases her cold feet on Rebecca’s attitude, and everyone backs her up on this. Since when did writing romances mean that you had to be the perfect romantic yourself? There’s also the previously mentioned lack of a redeeming love story. Every apparently happy couple is really unhappy and usually adulterous. Again, it’s not the ending that makes a romance worth reading, it’s the relationships that build up to that ending. And this book just didn’t have them.

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