Not Since You

by Fiona Riley
November 12, 2019 · Bold Strokes Books

Do you like cruises and wish The Love Boat was queer? Do you want to read about two women who are very attracted to one another, but have to sneak around on a ship pretending that they’re strangers? Can you put up with some disrespectful representation of Caribbean countries in order to enjoy these things? I thought I could, but it turns out that I loved the idea of this book more than the actual experience of reading it.

In Not Since You, Charlotte decides to take her “honeymoon” alone after she breaks off an engagement to her cheating fiancée. She’s a wealthy but reluctant cruiser, hoping to use the trip to quietly reflect, and work on her graphic design business. Lexi is a cruise ship bartender entering her favorite week of the year, the annual lesbian cruise. These two dated in high school until Charlotte buckled under her mother’s disapproval—based on Lexi’s class, not gender—and ended things. For Lexi, Charlotte is the one who got away, and she’s been skeptical of relationships ever since. Meanwhile, Charlotte is drowning in regret over the lost of her first love. When they run into one another on the ship, shock quickly turns to fascination, reconciliation, and rekindled pants feelings. Charlotte’s heartfelt apology leads Lexi to quickly forgive her. Their only problem is the cruise line’s strict no-sexing-the-guests policy, and the ship’s ubiquitous cameras. This leads to lots of teasing one another in public, and secret sex dates.

This book was at its best as an escape to the backstage of an Olivia-style cruise, where readers are plopped into a fantasy about a hot bartender who can’t keep their hands off you. While there are a few scenes set in port, most of the action takes place on a ship. It was a decent antidote to my long winter with no tropical trips in sight.

I appreciate romances with a painless resolution of conflict, minimal angst, and maximum ability to communicate emotion. Not Since You has all of these. Charlotte is the focus of the story, but Lexi’s coworkers play key roles in helping her open herself back up to love. Lexi and Charlotte are able to quickly work through their feelings about their past (and Charlotte’s ex) and treat us to some fantastic flirting, and repetitive sex scenes. Lexi and Charlotte’s sexual tension, and their mutual amazement at finding one another again, are delicious. However, they overcome most of their obstacles early in the book. It’s hard to take the heroines’ fear of discovery seriously when we have quasi-frottage in a dance class, and Lexi’s coworkers exhibiting no concern about her dating a guest.

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By the time they are officially discovered, even the Captain suspects they’re dating, and Lexi gets off on a technicality

The sexual tension was excellent, but that wasn’t enough to keep me entertained in a book where the sex wasn’t driving the plot. The problem was the low narrative tension; the absence of sufficient conflicts and obstacles to keep me engaged as a reader. This made Not Since You a stress-free read, but I kept putting the book down and feeling little draw to pick it back up. Without a non-romance subplot help the story simmer, even I, lover of quiet romances, found my interest waning. Whatever the book lacks in romantic tension, the sexual chemistry is masterful, with longing looks across the pool bar and desperate kisses behind the lifeboats. I definitely believed the energy pulling these two together. Not Since You could have soared as an erotic romance. Sadly, the characters occasionally shift their post-coital gaze to the islands outside the ship, and that’s when the logic holes appear.

Lexi has lived on ship for a decade and is supposed to be an expert on the Caribbean, but her travel advice is unimpressive: Go to a bar! Swim by a reef! Lexi never says why she wants to make this part of the world her permanent home; she only talks about how having no living relatives has left her untethered from her hometown. When she turns from paint-by-number trip advice to specific descriptions of islands, I started to notice factual errors. For example, saying an island was famous for its “white and powdery” beaches when most of its sand is yellow (and not its main attraction). Lexi’s local expertise seemed designed to make her the perfect tour guide for Charlotte’s vacay, but Lexi as a character didn’t feel believably invested in the region.

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Which is a problem since she and Charlotte end up moving to Aruba where they easily renovate and open a bar popular with locals and tourists, despite Lexi speaking no Papiamento or Dutch, or having any contacts there. I need my escapes to have a loose connection to reality. This ending felt very unlikely.

If you’re interested in the culture of living and working on a cruise ship, this book has lots of compelling details. However, I wanted to see the characters interacting with the ports of call, and that’s where things fell apart. Busy, bustling Curaçao is unrecognizable as a one-road island; Aruba is depicted as an entirely English-speaking place where the heroines’ have sexcapades on their hotel room’s secluded “private” beach (in reality Aruban beaches are public and boats pass by regularly). The couple finally have one conversation with an Aruban resident near the end of the book, but the woman is described as having a “Caribbean” accent rather than a specific one. This type of lazy inaccuracy was common in Not Since You, as the many locations all blended into a generic tropical backdrop with little relationship to the actual islands the characters visit.

There were also occasional logistical steps missing in the sex scenes that were mildly distracting. I found myself thinking, wasn’t she wearing underwear this time? Where did those go? Or, I thought she was soft packing, so was she wearing a harness with a dildo the whole day at work? That doesn’t sound comfortable.

I love reading travel romances, both for the escapism and to learn about new places (or revisit places I love, many of which are in the Caribbean). The escape-factor here was very high and timed perfectly for those of us in colder climes. There was some delightfully non-formulaic sex between two people who were consistently kind to one another. Still, as the action shifted from the cruise ship, to stops and long stays on islands, I became frustrated. I was often bored by the simplistic storyline, and annoyed by the poorly researched descriptions. Islands don’t exist just as places to play for visitors, and the way they were depicted felt like there was no interest in exploring them as anything beyond a series of private cabanas with invisible locals. I didn’t care enough about the detail of the cruise setting and ship life to stop noticing the problems with how the rest of the world was represented. I’m glad Charlotte had her dream vacation, but I’m still looking for a dreamy island romance novel.

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