Reviews on The Novel Cauldron are intertwined with spoilers. For spoil free reviews, please find my mini book reviews on Goodreads or Instagram. Thank you for visiting and enjoy this review of Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein.
2.5 Stars Goodreads Rating System
Let’s start out by admitting that before reading Head Over Heels by Hannah Orenstein, my previous experience with “sport romance” was limited to exactly one other piece of media: the anime Yuri!!! On Ice. It’s fantastic. I’m getting sport politics. I’m getting romantic longing! I’m getting poodles! It’s a passionate, nail biting journey to the Grand Prix finals. I sobbed like a fool and fell in love.
So, when I decided to join Book of the Month Club, I discovered there was a book marketed as a romance set during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Sport Romance? In an alternate history of 2020 where the Olympics actually happened?
Wow. Okay, yes! Sign me up!
Head Over Heels, Hannah Orenstein’s third novel, is an adequate work of women’s fiction focused on the exploration of the effects of sexual harassment and skewed patriarchal systems at play the world of modern gymnastics.
It’s … fine…
Topical and factual. It didn’t zing. In fact, I’ll even argue that it’s not a romance. Let’s dive in, shall we?
When Avery’s long-term relationship with a famous football player fizzles out, she slinks back to her hometown where an old crush and the new gymnastics coach, Ryan, invites Avery to help him train a new Olympic hopeful.
Avery is wary about returning to the gym. She is resistant to coping with her feelings over her own failed Olympic dreams and reflecting on her complicated relationship with her stringent coach, Dimitri. It’s especially complicated because Avery’s former best friend and team mate, Jasmine, is in a May-December relationship with Dimitri. Highly complicated.
But Avery is brave and takes the job. Once back in the gym her crush on Ryan flames anew. However, after an annoying game of will-they-won’t-they – it’s agreed they will keep things professional so they can focus on getting their mentee, Hallie, to Olympic Trials. Then they quickly change their mind and smooch.
Then a scandal hits that ripples through the world of gymnastics and shakes Avery, Hallie, and Jasmine to the core.
In an interview with shondaland, Orenstein claims the story is a “dark rom com”. That’s not a thing. Quality modern romance digs deep into the darker, messier side of human nature. There are quality dark heroes, and truly lovable lost heroines. And a talented author uses The Power of Love™ to help characters transcend to a better version of themselves.
The book works in the bits where the women find their inner strength and actively strive to take care of each other. Avery had to help herself before she had the strength to protect Hallie during the after effects of the scandal. Because she was able to help Hallie, Avery developed the courage to confront Jasmine about her unbalanced relationship. There’s a whole genre dedicated to these female forward stories. It’s called women’s fiction.
I think this genre identity crisis did not serve the overall novel very well. Maybe my review would have been gentler if I knew I was reading a woman’s fiction novel. But I was supposedly reading a romance.
So, let’s talk about the romance.
What Didn’t Work
Well, a prelude. The book, as a whole, lacked sensuality. It was well researched and informative, but it read like journalistic overview rather than a narrative story. I am not familiar with Orenstein’s other two previous novels to note if this is her personal style or if it was a quirk of this particular novel. It was quick to read, but the stilted writing kept me at a distance. So distant, in fact that I never really saw gymnast mentee Hallie as anything other than a plot device. Jasmine and Dimitri were much stronger on the page, which made that plot arch so much more dynamic. And that leaves me with…
Let’s Talk About the Romance
A good hero supports the heroine. A good hero believes the heroine. If the heroine is clearly uncomfortable at a party and wants to leave to tell the hero something very important, a hero will go! Immediately. No question. Furthermore, if the heroine tells the hero that the man offering the hero a job is her former abuser, a hero will not dismiss her!
A hero won’t make excuses.
A hero won’t insist that this is a make or break career job like that would make it okay to work with an abuser. No dream job is going to erase years of her mental and emotional abuse.
Time to say it.
Ryan is not a good hero. He was fairly milquetoast before he stumbled into becoming what would be the villain of any other romance novel. Ryan is the basic boy who would emotionally wound the heroine before the real hero shows up to show her how a man does it! (Spoiler: a man does it by listening!)
But Emily, you say. Doesn’t that mean we get a delicious grovel?
Well, Romance Savvy Friend. Yes. It would mean that we get a delicious grovel. Heroes can mess up. They can be boneheads. And then we get The Grovel.
There’s a fairly grand gesture. It was fine. But it wasn’t enough. I did not swoon. I was not impressed.
He didn’t listen to her because he wanted a shiny job. He made her feel uncomfortable, went behind her back, kept secrets, and diminished her feelings. Then he threw some money at the problem.
It wasn’t enough.
Mild. A couple of kisses lead to one quick “tumble” – ha! Yes, it was at the gym, of course. It was distantly descriptive with a gentle fade to black. Kind of boring.
Ugh. What a jerk.
I’d recommend this for gymnastic fans, contemporary romance readers, women’s fiction readers. It’s an airport book – something you’re glad to have to pass the time when you’re waiting. It’s a fine book. One of those breezy reads. Honestly, it probably would have floated off my radar in a couple of months if Ryan hadn’t made me so angry.
I loved when Jasmine took a stand, left Dimitri, and Avery and Jasmine became the dynamic duo ready to set out and protect young female gymnasts.
In short, I think if the book wasn’t pigeon-holed into being a Rom Com and would have been able to fully bask in its Women’s Fiction glory, I would have found it more enjoyable. I’m glad Orenstein took the time to shed the light on the power imbalance in modern gymnastics. It’s vital we give women a space to be heard and feel protected.