Rating: 5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

Fen’s true calling was ballet, but after being diagnosed with Becker Muscular Dystrophy (BMD) as a young adult, that dream fell by the wayside. Now, Fen works for the brother of his mother’s beau, spending his days restoring antiques that he buys at estate auctions. The work may not be thrilling, but he enjoys bringing new life and, more importantly, function to old things.

Every now and again, Fen finds something at an auction that catches his eye and buys it for himself. That is exactly what happens one rainy day and Fen ends up with a puzzle box that hides more than one valuable treasure. Before Fen even has the chance to make a good faith effort at tracking down the owner, a brash man barges into the antique shop where Fen works demanding the belongings back. The man is overbearing and unpleasant and not even his suave good looks are quite enough to change Fen’s mind. Yet something about this domineering man somehow draws out all of Fen’s sass which, oddly enough, only seems to encourage the man.

Ripley is livid that his mother decided to auction off parts of the family estate without so much as a by-your-leave. While he manages to get the auction house to withdraw several listings, there is one in particular that contained a very special box that Ripley desperately wants returned. He is floored when the attractive young man who bought the lot gives him grief about the mixup saying that, legally, he bought the items fair and square at the auction. Determined to regain his property, Ripley tries to butter Fen up by purchasing an outlandishly expensive kintsugi globe worth hundreds of pounds…and inviting the young man out for a drink.

Ripley started off just wanting his belongings back, but Fen is enthralling to be around. Whip-smart, but also unusually sensitive, he does something no man has been capable of doing for several years: make Ripley feel. Ripley is eager to explore something more with Fen, but his many attempts at enticing the younger man on a date go from bad to worse–starting with his ill-thought out idea to pay Fen to be his temporary boyfriend. Things only get more complicated as these two begin to fall harder and faster, as the built-in expiration date and promise of payment only muddy the waters.

Fen is a contemporary get-together story by Barbara Elsborg. It’s set in the UK and includes themes like age-gap, income gap, and colossal misunderstandings. Fen and Ripley are a little sunshine/grump respectively, but more than anything, I feel like these two are star-crossed and not sure what to do about it. The “I’ll pay you to be my boyfriend” is very Pretty Woman, but I liked how this device was very up-front and how Fen and Ripley kept mulling over what the offer actually means to and for them.

First of all, I just loved the chemistry between Fen and Ripley and their dynamic. Ripley comes across as stoic and intense, arguing like the barrister he is to get his way. First impressions of Ripley are that he is extremely entitled and the book is peppered with comments about his wealth. From the beginning, his relationship with money and privilege poses an issue for him and Fen because Ripley’s immediate thought is to eschew any emotional attachment by framing his entire relationship with Fen as a transaction. Almost as quickly, however, Ripley discovers that he just fits so well with Fen and it gets increasingly hard to keep the man at arm’s length. The promised payment also quickly becomes an elephant in the room and it only gets bigger the more time he and Fen spend together.

Meanwhile, Fen balances his mostly positive thinking with a delightfully sharp tongue. For example, when Fen accompanies Ripley to a swanky dinner party and many guests question his use of a cane, Fen not only changes his answer each time he’s asked (shark attack, hiking accident, ornery sheep), he doesn’t miss a beat when called out on the answers and telling the guest he fell off a cliff while hiking and landed in the water where a shark attacked him. He is intelligent and curious and has interests that actually play a role in the story, like kintsugi (loosely, the Japanese art of fixing something like a chipped tea cup by using gold as glue, thereby making the item more beautiful that it was before it got broken). The virtues of kintsugi kickstart the connection between Fen and Ripley and it is a kintsugi exhibition that serves as the backdrop of their first date.

As these two get closer and closer, Ripley’s past starts to come to the fore. Though the details start off fairly nebulous, we eventually learn critical details about Ripley’s former boyfriend, how the relationship ended, and why it haunts Ripley. That last part explains why Ripley is so keen to keep Fen at a distance, despite the red-hot attraction and infinitely well-matched personalities. And, of course, the fact that Ripley made the mistake (and he realized it was a mistake as soon as the words left his mouth) of offering Fen money in exchange for spending time together. Personally, I really enjoyed how well this transactional element is worked into the fabric of the story and how the MCs keep recalibrating their feelings with the knowledge (or fear) that their time together will actually turn out to be a translation. Immediately after Ripley makes the offer, Fen asks for a week to mull it over, but even before then, it’s almost painfully clear that the “paid boyfriend” thing is going to cause them both trouble. Despite this, neither one of them seems capable of having the hard discussion about what to do about it. Things come to a head in a spectacular fashion when Fen’s father–the identity of whom Fen has kept a secret from everyone–causes both Fen and Ripley some major heartache.

Overall, if you enjoy witty MCs with amazing chemistry or you like the Pretty Woman trope, I think you’ll love this story. I was enthralled with Fen and Ripley who felt incredibly well developed and interesting as individuals, and together seemed almost unstoppable.