The Bromance Book Club

by Lyssa Kay Adams
November 5, 2019 · Berkley
Contemporary RomanceRomance

There is nothing I adore more than a grovel in a romance novel. Flirting, sexual tension, meet-cutes, meet-disasters, declarations of love… you name it, I love it. But none of those things are better than an epic groveling scene, especially when it has an alpha protagonist brought down to their knees and desperate beyond measure. It’s when you can really feel how much one protagonist (usually the one who has screwed up royally) loves the wronged party. The stakes are similar to fighting for the fate of the universe. They have to get regain the trust of their beloved by groveling and expressing sincere remorse for their (definitely shitty) actions. And if they don’t — well, nothing matters anymore. Yeah, these stakes might be even higher than the fate of the universe.

Imagine my delight when I realized that The Bromance Book Club featured a marriage-in-trouble story that is ONE HUNDRED PERCENT grovelling. Not an exaggeration! Y’all, I don’t even gravitate toward sports romance and I was ready to one-click this sucker to infinity. This book was pretty much written for me. Gavin, baseball player and resident dumbass, is moping and frantic because his wife Thea just kicked him out of the house and wants a divorce. Spoiler alert: he’s definitely at fault.

After a particularly passionate night a couple months ago, Gavin was shocked to realize that Thea’s reaction was way more fervent and genuine than usual. She completely lost control during her orgasm. Gavin realized that he’d never seen this level of enthusiasm after all the times she’s supposedly come. Accurately guessing that she’s been faking orgasms for their entire relationship, Thea confirmed his suspicions. Gavin, acting like the world’s best candidate for #1 man-baby, freaked out and moved to another bedroom while giving her the silent treatment. After tolerating this asshattery behavior for a month, Thea gives up and kicks him out. That’s where the novel begins.

Gavin’s athlete buddies are determined to help save his marriage and pull him into their secret romance book club. Forcing Gavin to read a marriage-in-trouble historical romance called Courting the Countess, the book club hopes that it’ll provide some valuable insight into women’s perspective re: relationships and romance. Alongside the book, the men also counsel Gavin through every Thea interaction in an effort not to fuck up things up even more. I thought it impossible that Gavin could sink even lower in Thea’s estimation, but the men have his best interests at heart.

I’ll be honest: I was skeptical about the book club. I understood their rationale — m/f romance novels do center emotional experiences (especially the heroine’s arc). I didn’t think Courting the Countess could do any harm, but romance novels also aren’t a foolproof manual to fix a marriage. To my relief, I was pleased to see that Courting the Countess wasn’t the most important aspect in his quest for forgiveness. Yes, Gavin gained some empathetic realizations while reading the romance (there are some very convenient parallels between the fictional couple and his marriage), but the book isn’t always perfect. Replicating the lessons sometimes screws things up even more, and Gavin has to use his instincts to get back into Thea’s heart.

Do the book club members resemble caricatures at times? Yes. Did I laugh and not really care anyway? Also yes. The genre discussions are meta, and most romance readers would giggle and nod excitedly at the references.

Mack pointed at the drink carrier. “Pumpkin spice latte, just as you ordered.”

Gavin’s mouth dropped open. “You drink these, too?”

Del dropped unceremoniously into a chair by the window. “I love them, but I’m too embarrassed to order them for myself.”

Mack plopped down on the couch and kicked his feet up. “Don’t be ashamed for liking them. The backlash against the PSL is a perfect example of how toxic masculinity permeates even the most mundane things in life. If masses of women like something, our society automatically begins to mock them. Just like romance novels. If women like them, they must be a joke, right?”

You see what I mean? It straddles the line between meta, funny, affirming, ridiculous, and idealistic. It is impossible not to enjoy these moments between Gavin and his fellow book club members. The humor is infectious and I laughed constantly.

The smartest decision in The Bromance Book Club is to start the story during Gavin’s lowest moment. If I had read the aforementioned dumbassery as it happened? I wouldn’t have forgiven Gavin even if he had personally leaped up from the pages and kissed my feet. His crimes — while completely infuriating and worthy of rage — are technically theoretical since I never had to see him act so ridiculously. Gavin is an object of pity. I did not want to like him; trust me, I tried my very best to hate him along with Thea. But it is difficult to hate someone when you can sense his level of remorse/disgust with himself. He knows he’s fucked up. He’s completely devoted to winning back his wife so he can reclaim his marriage and family. Gavin is an A+ groveller, even if he makes impulsive and “lord, you’re testing my patience, Gavin” decisions at times. Considering I’m someone who is 100% heroine-centric, it is nothing short of miraculous that I never contemplated thwacking Gavin in the head with Courting the Countess (well, not more than twice. That’s still superhuman restraint on my part).

Thea deserves a million hugs and a sainthood. I tolerated Gavin, but Thea was the star of the show. She’s fucking done after being miserable in a marriage that’s crumbled her to nothing (they have problems that extend far beyond That Night). She suffered a childhood with toxic parents, quit college after getting pregnant with twin daughters, sacrificed her interest in art to become a stay-at-home-mom, supported Gavin as part of the soul-sucking Nashville Legends’ WAGS, and is generally exhausted.

“I trust you, Thea. It’s him I don’t trust.”

“Oh, that is so insulting.” Thea pressed a hand to her forehead dramatically and adopted a breezy Southern Belle accent. “I’m just a fragile little damsel in distress who can’t take care of herself around such strong, virulent men. Save my virtue, dear husband.”

I adore Thea. She is spitting angry and determined to get her life back on track by finishing her degree. Her rage is cathartic to the nth degree. She’s earned that fury, but how often do we get to see women cling to their well-deserved anger for an entire novel? The Bromance Book Club is a 100% grovel-fest because it couldn’t be otherwise: Thea has been harmed too much for a mere five chapters of Gavin being remorseful and sad. They have a lot of shit to get through, and it’s incredibly satisfying to see them slowly work through their communication/emotional problems.

I loved a lot about The Bromance Book Club, but I want to address some frustrating elements. While I was reading, I kept getting a nagging sense that something was either missing or not quite right. It wasn’t until I read these excellent comments by Jennifer Prokop of Fated Mates that a lightbulb pinged in my head and everything came into clarity (thanks, Jen!). My nagging sense was true: some things were missing and not quite right.

First, not once do Gavin or Thea ever bring up the possibility of marriage counseling. Thea mentions therapy for her children in the event of a divorce, but it’s never presented as an option to save their marriage. And okay, there would be no plot if they went to a counselor and the bromance book club didn’t offer marital advice. There’s no space for a couples counseling session in the story. But I wish the possibility had at least been mentioned, even if either party shot it down.

Second, as Jen points out, it makes little sense that Thea’s orgasm-via-penetrative-sex problem goes away at the end. She’s been faking orgasms for most of their three-year marriage. The first attempted sex scene culminates in no orgasm, leading to a fight. It’s only towards the end, after a big dramatic emotional moment where Thea publicly supports her husband, that they rush home and have hot sex. Emotions are heightened, and Gavin thinks during the drive, “His wife was having an orgasm tonight if it killed him.”

Luckily for Gavin, he didn’t need to die that night for Thea to have an orgasm. Thea has an orgasm — not once, not twice, but over three times that night. Once during oral sex (plus some fingering), twice during penetration (without fingers for additional clitoral stimulation, but there is light butt spanking in the second round). It’s stated that they have more sex that night, but the details re: the number of orgasms are unclear. Finally, Thea has an orgasm via penetrative sex in the epilogue. The book never explicitly explains why her ability to orgasm changed so abruptly, but the most obvious implication is that her improved relationship with Gavin is responsible.

I turned to Dr. Jen Gunter’s The Vagina Bible to help me better understand why the portrayal of orgasms was so bothersome toward the end. I knew it was problematic, but I wanted science to back me up. It’s a brilliant book and I highly recommend it to every person with or without a vagina. After reading it this summer, I was embarrassed at how little I knew about my own body. Dr. Gunter provided me with exactly what I was looking for in Chapter 4: Female Pleasure and Sex Ed (pgs. 34-35).

What’s the deal with vaginal orgasms and the G-spot?

It is hard to overestimate the damage done by Sigmund Freud in popularizing the myth of the vaginal orgasm. Only one third of women are capable of achieving orgasm with penile penetration alone (meaning hands off, penile thrusting only), so the idea that everyone should be having orgasms this way results in two thirds of women believing there is something wrong with their sexual wiring when really they are perfect.

Not orgasming with unassisted penile penetration is not a flaw, it’s a feature.

Further supporting this vaginal orgasm myth is the idea of the G-spot, supposedly identified by Dr. Ernst Gräfenberg in 1950. In modern lore, this is a magical spot on the vaginal wall (beneath the bladder) that when touched will drive a woman “wild.” Again, many women feel frustrated when they don’t have a G-spot.

Digging through the data, we find that Dr. Gräfenberg’s original paper did not describe a special spot. His paper is actually called “The Role of the Urethra in Female Orgasm,” and he described an “erotic zone” in the front of the vagina that was intimate with the urethra and lower portion of the bladder. Yes, he was likely describing the body, root, and bulbs of the clitoris as they envelop the urethra. As expected, multiple studies have found no macroscopic structure other than the urethra, the clitoris, and vaginal wall in the location of the so-called G-spot. The lower part of the vagina, close to the urethra, will feel great for many women because stimulation here is accessing the clitoris, but it takes the right stimulation—it is not an “on/off switch.”

It is not surprising to me when I hear of women who fake orgasms with male partners. After all, they have been led to believe that a female orgasm should be reached with a penis by way of an imaginary spot.

Two thirds of women can’t orgasm with unassisted penile assistance. Thea isn’t an anomaly; she’s part of a silent majority! It’s unlikely that her inability to orgasm via penetrative sex is causally linked to her emotional happiness (I’m not denying a potential correlation. Emotions definitely have something to do with it). Thea was faking it way before they had marital problems; why did the issue magically vanish after she and Gavin patch things up in the book?

Dr. Gunter goes on to say that clitoral stimulation (toys, fingers, penis, tongue, etc) amplifies pleasure. Her conclusion: “It is best to do away with terms like vaginal orgasm and G-spot, as they are incorrect. The goal is female orgasm, and it can be achieved in so many ways” (35).

The main conflict of the book stems from the faking/no-orgasm issue (it’s the catalyst that caused their separation). Yes, they have other issues that extend outside the bedroom. But the faking/no-orgasm issue is Gavin’s white whale: not only does he want Thea to love him again, he desperately wants to be the one to give her pleasure. The conflict centers him: he needs to get her off.

My complaint: I acknowledge that Thea’s inability to orgasm has ties to the emotional health of her relationship. But I wish there was more nuance as to how the no-orgasm “problem” was worked toward/solved.

“It means that orgasms were the least of our problems!” That’s what pissed her off the most. He was mad at her for faking it in bed, but didn’t he know she’d been faking everything for years?

The above passage occurs during their first on-page interaction. There is nothing wrong with this train-of-thought, but it sets the tone for how orgasms are talked about in the book. Every discussion of the faking always moves from the physical to emotional, which inevitably strengthens the implication of “causation” between emotional health and faking/no-orgasms.

The Bromance Book Club rarely brings up the existence of non-emotional solutions to the no-orgasm “problem.” For example, Gavin and Thea never have a frank conversation about the mechanics of sex or techniques to amplify clitoral stimulation. The closest the book gets to a non-emotional solution is the sex scene in Courting the Countess.

He shifted uncomfortably on the couch and reread the scene. Benedict had his face up her skirts. Irena was panting. Moaning. Benedict worked two fingers inside her. In and out. In time with his tongue.

Sweet Jesus … he was definitely going to do that to Thea if he ever got the chance, and shit. The instant he replaced the image of Irena with the image of Thea, it was too much.

What follows soon after is the attempted sex scene that doesn’t culminate in an orgasm.

Gavin pressed the pad of his thumb against her swollen clit. He could do this. He’d learned a few things in the past few minutes from Lord Licks-A-Lot. “Like this?”

This is evidence of Gavin linking his “education” to his sex life. Not only does he try to replicate the sex scene from Courting the Countess, he also borrows the earl’s talking points (e.g., asking if he can touch her, wanting her to “surrender to pleasure,” etc). Ironically, his “education” doesn’t pay off — Thea doesn’t orgasm here.

“I don’t know what to say! I don’t know what’s wrong! You can’t just snap your fingers and say, come, baby, and make it happen. God, what is it with men? You think that just because you have a hard-on, we women are supposed to just roll over and start moaning like a porn star for you.”

I love this! Thea doesn’t know what’s wrong. Her orgasm isn’t some predictable phenomenon that she can control. Then, the no-orgasm discussion (like all others before it) predictably shifts back to their emotional problems again. They fight, someone storms out, and the resulting reconciliation occurs fairly quickly. That night, they kiss and sleep in the same bed with newfound intimacy, but don’t try to have sex.

The first sex scene with a successful orgasm occurs late in the book. As I mentioned before, Thea has a lot of orgasms that night. The sex scene is mostly from Gavin’s POV and he explicitly references Courting the Countess in his head (in fact, Thea’s first orgasm is straight from the book. He gets her off using his fingers and mouth). Remember when I said that sometimes it feels like the book centers Gavin’s ego instead of Thea? This scene is a great example.

And then she went limp. Her throat cry faded into a soft grunt, another whimper, another oh, God.

Holy shit. He’d done it.

He’d made his wife come.

Holy shit.

She came.

Of the pair, it is Thea who has been unable to successfully experience an orgasm during their marriage. She is the one who has continuously been denied pleasure. Yes, Gavin feels bad that he’s not noticed her faking. But it is Thea who has suffered the longest.

And yet. This sex scene — with over three orgasms — focuses on Gavin’s POV! The first two orgasms (oral/fingering and then penetrative) are from his perspective. Then the POV flips to Thea at the very end and they have penetrative sex again, culminating in Thea’s third orgasm of the night.

Perhaps this is me being a heroine-centric reader, but… why don’t we get to see Thea’s perspective during her two “first” orgasms (“first” orgasm and “first” penetrative orgasm since the separation)? She’s the one who’s never been fully satisfied during their marriage. It’s not that Gavin’s feelings aren’t important. But if I had the choice between “Gavin feeling smug that he made his wife come” and “Thea feeling exuberant that she can come with her husband,” I would choose the latter. I don’t think there’s a “correct” way to portray the sex scene; I just wish it had been Thea’s POV when I consider who’s suffered the most.

There is an inevitable black moment later but (spoiler alert!) they make up and live happily-ever-after. They have penetrative sex one final time during the epilogue. This is what runs through Thea’s mind:

Her orgasm hit suddenly. As it did so often now. As if there existed inside her a deep well of trust that only Gavin could touch.

What exactly am I frustrated by and why do I wish there was more nuance? The Bromance Book Club heavily implies that perfect emotional health in a relationship is what it takes to have orgasms. Now, the book never explicitly says this. But when orgasms are always linked to emotional health during every single conversation, it is difficult not to take away this message.

To be clear: I strongly believe that emotional health in a relationship is integral to sex and pleasure. However, 1) Thea has orgasms on the regular (despite not having them for three years) once her marital problems cease, and 2) Thea and Gavin never have a conversation together on how to improve their sex life. The one time non-emotional sex improvement is mentioned, it’s Gavin getting tips from a romance novel. This is solitary activity on Gavin’s side. Yes, Thea’s present during the sex scene. But she doesn’t actively research or try methods to amplify her pleasure. She doesn’t even realize that Gavin is using the book’s tips during the sex scene! Wouldn’t it have been more rewarding if they explored and researched sexual techniques together?

I’m regretful at all the things The Bromance Book Club could’ve been but isn’t. Gavin could’ve used sex toys to help Thea achieve clitoral stimulation. They could’ve consulted a sex therapist. I would’ve loved a discussion about how penetration isn’t the most reliable method of achieving orgasms. Instead of Gavin caring so much about his ego, he could’ve reached the revelation that it’s not always about him. The important thing is that Thea experiences pleasure, not that he needs to be the one to always provide pleasure via his dick, fingers, or mouth.

I’m not angry that these aren’t included. Without the benefit of Dr. Gunter’s book, I doubt I would’ve been attuned to these truths. I’m indulging in wishful thinking about omissions; my main criticism is how Thea’s difficulty to orgasm disappears without explanation (well, the implied explanation is that she and Gavin have sorted out their emotional issues but I don’t like it). The premise had the opportunity to shine a light on a phenomenon that most women experience (again, two thirds of women can’t orgasm with just penile insertion. Two thirds!). Instead, The Bromance Book Club abandons that lens to center Gavin’s ego instead. Yay, she can come on his dick — that’s how we truly know it’s a happily ever after! /sarcasm

The Bromance Book Club isn’t alone in its misleading messages. I don’t want to single it out for “unrealistic orgasm rep” when it’s one of many examples in a genre I adore. In fact, I was ecstatic to see Thea frankly talk about her difficulties and why she “faked it” for so many years (see Dr. Gunter’s rationale above re: why so many women fake it). The premise had so much potential to subvert the “penetrative orgasms for everyone” status quo in the genre, and it never followed through. In the end, Thea — like almost every heroine in cis m/f romance — gets unlimited orgasms for life. It’s as though a flaw has been eradicated now that she can come with her husband almost every single time. As Dr. Gunter says, “Not orgasming with unassisted penile penetration is not a flaw, it’s a feature” (34). That’s where my frustration comes from.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about this issue, but I enjoyed everything else about The Bromance Book Club. The writing is polished, the grovel is so satisfying (I love desperate heroes at their wits’ end), and Thea has my permission to rule the world for eternity. Adams’s voice is magnetic; my eyes were glued on the page because the dialogue flowed seamlessly. Time stood still, and I was shocked to discover that four hours had whirled past after setting it down. If the book club and marriage-in-trouble storyline sound intriguing, then give The Bromance Book Club a chance. Just be aware that the orgasm storyline isn’t without frustrating elements.

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