ARC Review| Bagging Alice by Laura Barnard

Book Review Bagging Alice by Laura BarnardAfter a contentious break-up, Alice’s ex-boyfriend seeks revenge by publicizing private nude pictures of her. Though Alice reports him to the police, and has a technologically savvy friend try to get the pictures down, they keep popping back up. A photographer by trade, she begins to lose her clients. Then her roommate moves out unexpectedly, just before rent is due. Worried about making ends meet, Alice agrees (against her better judgement) to allow friend-of-a-friend and notorious playboy, Tom, to move in. Despite Tom’s tomcat ways, and Alice’s mistrust, sparks fly.

I want to start by saying, I was so thrilled when author, Laura Barnard, contacted me to review her latest book Bagging Alice. This is my first ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) review! When I received her message, I looked up her previous published novels, which looked super cute. Though this book is part of a series, The Babes of Brighton, Laura noted that it could be read as a stand-alone. Bagging Alice releases today, and is the third book in the series.

Since this is my first ARC I want to take a minute to highlight the guiding principles of my reviews. You can head over to my Review Policy for the full nitty-gritty. The part you may find most important is – I will always post my honest opinion, regardless of whether or not the review was solicited by the author.

So let’s jump in with what I really appreciated about Bagging Alice. It may seem like a minor detail, but the packaging of her novel is really well done. The cover art screams cute romance, and if you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that all the publicity photos are adorable. I totally judge books by their covers. When the artistry around the book is well done, I notice.

As for the content, this is a fantastic rom-com premise. The two leading characters suddenly find themselves living together, leading to the immediate build-up of sexual tension and romantic chemistry. I think the challenge of a romance novel is that you know the ending – the two main characters fall in love and live happily ever. It’s predictable. Talented romance writers must make the momentum leading to that happy ending interesting, funny, and seductive. The author’s goal is to make the reader fall a little bit in love along with the characters. Laura did a great job of creating a provocative predicament that will draw readers into the story.

Laura has a knack for syntax. There is good flow and pacing to her writing. The novel presents a clear tone and personality from the very first sentence. The writing is descriptive, with lines like, “His lips are smooth as velvet and he smells of woody sandalwood and cedar”, that are perfectly fitted to the romance genre.

In the interest of being honest, I must touch upon some elements of the novel that did not resonate with me. Personally, I found the secondary characters (Alice and Tom’s circle of friends) a little weak. I didn’t have a strong sense of their identities, but I think that was largely due to the fact that I’d not read the previous novels in the series. Though Bagging Alice really does work as a stand-alone novel, I think I would have had a stronger connection to the secondary characters if I’d read the previous books.

I greatly disliked the male romantic interest, Tom. I was actually offended by him. I spent much of the novel contorting my face in disgust at his character. Tom is supremely arrogant, misogynistic, prone to jealousy and physical aggression. Reading the chapters written from Tom’s perspective actually shocked me. In order to provide an example, I feel like I must include a disclaimer – please be advised that the following language is sexually gratuitous, and may be objectionable to some readers. Tom relates a random one-nighter with the following charming line:

“I pick her up and turn her around so she’s on all fours. I don’t want to be looking at her if she’s going to be making those ridiculous noises. I thrust into her, not caring enough to warm her up first. Low and behold she’s as wet as an otter’s pocket. Dirty b*tch”. 

I mean, WOW. Right? I should point out that Alice’s character is equally crass. By and large, I found her less offensive than Tom. Either way, it’s not a good contest.

Now, I’m not a prudish reader. I’ve pretty much read the gamut of genres. I could look past the strong language, but the major problem I had with this book was that it was fraught with issues of consent.

Given that Alice has had nude pictures published without her permission, there is ample opportunity for this book to touch upon issues of consent in a thoughtful, circumspect way. Instead, characters continually cross lines of consent, and it’s treated flirtatiously and playfully. For example, on Tom’s first night living with Alice, he is uncomfortable with his sleeping quarters. So he climbs into her bed while she is sleeping. She wakes up a bit miffed by his presumptuousness. Overall though, this moment is treated as the first arousing encounter between the two characters. It was meant to be cute, but I was thoroughly creeped out.

Much later, Alice gets drunk in a bar, and is chatted up by a guy who without warning leans in and starts kissing her. During the kiss, Alice wonders if she wants it to happen. Before she’s made up her mind, Tom interrupts the pair, hauls out and punches the guy in the face. Some readers may think there is precedent for this act – given the cheeky, unexpected, make-out session. However, Tom doesn’t do it out of a sense of worry over Alice’s safety. He does it because he’s jealous. He follows the punch by yelling at Alice for kissing other guys. And it should be noted – not that it’s super relevant – that Alice and Tom have not hooked up at that point. Tom has no claim on her (not that anyone has “claim” on anyone else in this world… See? Issues of consent all over the place).

When Tom suggests to Alice that she should be kissing him, instead of other guys, Alice’s response is:

“Not now, not soon, not ever. So get the idea out of your head”. 

To which Tom thinks:

“I love how she acts like she doesn’t want this. I saw her checking me out. She wants me and she knows it, but it’s just her prissy little attitude that’s holding her back.”

This is dangerous territory. If someone says they do not want to be kissed, it should be a nonstarter. Consent not granted. No argument, no second-guessing the motive, just – NO. In my opinion, this willful misinterpretation and disregard of a character’s wishes does not make for a cutesy, amorous scenario.

It created an odd rebound that consent was touched upon – through Alice’s constant internal questioning of whether she wants to be kissed as she is being kissed, through the topic of revenge pornography, Tom climbing into her bed while she sleeps, etc. – but the follow-up was to treat these issues like a series of sexy mishaps that bring the two romantic leads together.

If the characters had been less crass, the language a little less shocking, and above all, if the lines of consent had not been continually crossed, I would have enjoyed this book more.

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