REVIEW: At First Spite by Olivia Dade

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Illustrated cover in dusky pink/rosey colours featuring a Note for Readers: The author and I follow each other on social media and have been friendly for some years. Regardless, this review is my honest opinion.

Content notes: Grief, depression, death of a child (off page but recalled in the book).

Dear Olivia Dade,

I look forward to your books every year – it’s not unusual for them to turn up in my best of lists – and you are a reliably good author for me. I know I’ll always like a book from you, possibly even love it.

At First Spite is a book I liked a lot but did not love. From what I’ve read online already I may be an outlier here.

When the book begins, Athena Greydon, 37, is engaged to Dr Johnny Vine, 31 and they are celebrating their engagement in Johnny’s home town of Harlot’s Bay, Maryland. Athena’s friends and family aren’t at the party so, apart from Johnny, Athena doesn’t know anyone. Johnny’s off talking to friends and at the buffet, Athena meets a handsome man around of about her same age or perhaps a little older and they hit it off, bonding over mutual insatiable curiosity and love of potato-based food. Then it turns out that this stranger is Dr Matthew Vine, Johnny’s older brother whom she had not met previously, the same brother who has been trash-talking Athena since the engagement began and who has made it clear he does not support the marriage.  She then overhears an argument between Johnny and Matthew where Matthew says more negative things about her, so it’s fair to say Athena is not in the Dr Matthew Vine the Third’s fan club. (By the by: what kind of self-respecting fiance leaves his betrothed alone for so much of the engagement party, especially when he knows she doesn’t know any of the other guests?)

Eight months later, Athena moves to Harlot’s Bay a single woman, Johnny having finally caved to Matthew’s urgings and broken off the engagement only weeks before the wedding. Athena had purchased the spite house immediately next door to Johnny’s house in the bay as a wedding gift for him. (Well, she used all her savings for the deposit but she still has a mortgage. Is it really a gift if you bring the mortgage too? I admit I was a little confused by this.) Now that they’re not together, Athena, having quit her job in preparation for moving to the area in order to live with Johnny once they were married, has no money and nowhere else to go. So, she moves in to the spite house.

Up until that point, Athena had been largely supported by her parents, who are well-off as a result of lucrative careers as paediatric cardiologists. Athena has multiple degrees and has been something of a career dilettante – staying in a job for a few years, and then moving on due to boredom or burnout. Matthew raised Johnny after their parents checked out following the death of their middle brother, Adrian, as a baby (only slightly older than Johnny was at the time). Matthew was eight. Johnny has been indulged and supported by Matthew for his whole life, perhaps to try and make up for the lack of other family. Matthew still pays half of Johnny’s student loans even though they are both paediatricians who (a) have jobs (Johnny works with Matthew in the practice he co-owns with his best friend Yvonna) and (b) own their own houses free and clear (Matthew’s house was gifted to him by his parents, Johnny’s house was willed to him by his grandmother). Why can’t Johnny pay his own loans?

Much of Matthew’s initial resistance to the relationship between Athena and Johnny was because he feared he would end up supporting both of them instead of just Johnny. (Johnny had told Athena he would support her until she found her next career and she should take all the time she needed to decide Which  makes me question that spite house mortgage again.) Plus, they’d only known each other a couple of months before getting engaged. From where Matthew is standing, it all looks very reckless and unwise.

After Matthew met Athena in person, his reasons changed, even though he feels ashamed about it. In any event, Matthew knows that Johnny would never make Athena happy in the long term. And, he couldn’t bear seeing her married to his brother and long for her for the rest of his life. Matthew feels a lot of guilt about his part in breaking them up but he still believes their marriage would not have been successful.

Athena is aware of the first reasons for Matthew’s objections, if not his later ones. She’s hurt and angry and stung. She’s determined she will not take more from her parents and hasn’t told them she has basically no money and no job and she’s in a house only ten feet wide by necessity rather than choice.

As it happens, while the spite house is directly attached to Johnny’s house, Matthew’s house is on the other side of a narrow alleyway on the other side. Athena’s and Matthew’s windows into the alley are effectively windows into each other’s houses.

Athena is initially very angry with Matthew but after a while they develop a friendship because Matthew apologises genuinely and because he feels so much guilt he accepts all of Athena’s pranks (signing him up for newsletters, multi-level marketing calls, etc) as his due. And, because, let’s face it, they belong together. After a while, Athena realises that Matthew is actually a really nice guy and they do have a lot in common. Johnny is away on the honeymoon-that-wasn’t and Athena and Matthew start to spend a lot of time together.

However, Athena’s mental health is at rock bottom and she falls into a deep depression. Matthew, already desperately in love with her, helps her see what’s happening, cares for her and helps her to get treatment. Those are some of the most beautiful and moving parts of the story.

Along the way, Athena falls in love with Matthew too.  But… she used to be engaged to his brother and how can Matthew betray his beloved sibling that way? How could they possibly be together?

I felt it was a reasonable thing for Matthew to be worried about, particularly given the dynamic between the siblings.

Athena’s thinking was a little different.

Yeah, it was weird that she’d been engaged to his brother. She got his hesitance. She didn’t share it—Johnny was a grown-ass man who’d dumped her of his own free will, and he’d get over any damage to his ego sooner or later—but she got it.

I thought that Athena was being incredibly naive and unrealistic.

It’s obvious all along that Matthew and Athena belong together. But I did have a disconnect. Why was she ever with Johnny? They didn’t appear to have much in common. There wasn’t a lot of Johnny in the book really. I was told he was charming and funny but I didn’t see much of that for myself. Mostly he was a sponge who expected others to do things for him and who didn’t have much of a backbone. What attracted Athena to him in the first place? Why were they engaged? There is a suggestion that perhaps Athena was looking for an exit from some unhappiness in her job and in her life’s direction and got together with Johnny to give her that off ramp but it was not really explored. And it doesn’t explain why Johnny was engaged to Athena. (I liked Athena very much. But why did Johnny like her?) Of course, me believing in Johnny/Athena runs the risk of me being conflicted by Matthew/Athena so this may be one of those dilemmas where there is no perfect answer.

Also, on page at least, it never bothered Matthew that Johnny had been intimate with Athena. Maybe I’m just weird but that would bother me. I’d at least think about it. I think I could  move on from it but it would not be a non-issue.

Matthew is a such a caretaker I was very very glad when I read this:

Matthew had spent his entire life protecting others and taking on their burdens. His parents. His brothers. His grandmother. His patients. Her. But who protected him? Who shouldered his burdens when he labored under their weight?

I’d have liked to see more of Matthew being taken care of actually but that wasn’t really the story. Still, there were glimpses enough that I could tell that Athena would be there for him in a way he had not experienced before.

Athena meets a number of people in Harlot’s Bay and makes good and strong friendships. One of the links between these friendships is a mutual love of erotic romance, particularly monster-fucking books. While I have read and enjoyed a few monster romances I can’t say they’re my go-to reads. The “excerpts” featuring an arachnid monster (shudder), a yeti and a guppy-man, were, I think designed to lovingly parody the subgenre. They were pretty bad – deliberately so but still, bad. At lot of the humour in the book comes from these stories. I suspect others will enjoy this humour better than I did. Me, I felt a little disconnected from it.

There were some beautiful things in the book. They way Matthew took care of Athena when she was deeply struggling and at her lowest with depression, for one.

“I know you’re lost right now, Athena. I know you’re damaged. But you’re seeking new worlds, sweetheart, and sometimes that’s what happens. It doesn’t mean you’ll never set sail again. And no matter what happened before, no matter what happens next, you couldn’t be anything less than glorious if you tried.”

I enjoyed the friendships Athena built so easily. Her curiosity about life and just about everything. Harlot’s Bay itself was fascinating; the backstory and it’s quirky street and business names. I’m very curious about the mysterious “Sadie Brazen” and her narrator. I’m glad that by the end, Johnny and Matthew had a much healthier dynamic. Up until then, even though based in love, their relationship seemed very unhealthy to me.

Perhaps because some of the humour didn’t quite land for me, I found the story more melancholy than intended. It does explicitly with some heavy topics. Those heavy topics are treated with care and sensitivity but there were times I found them hard going.

At First Spite has much to recommend it and I certainly liked it but other of your books have worked better for me.

Grade: B

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Kaetrin

Kaetrin started reading romance as a teen and then took a long break, detouring into fantasy and thrillers. She returned to romance in 2008 and has been blogging since 2010. She reads contemporary, historical, a little paranormal, urban fantasy and romantic suspense, as well as erotic romance and more recently, new adult. She loves angsty books, funny books, long books and short books. The only thing mandatory is the HEA. Favourite authors include Mary Balogh, Susanna Kearsley, Joanna Bourne, Tammara Webber, Kristen Ashley, Shannon Stacey, Sarah Mayberry, JD Robb/Nora Roberts, KA Mitchell, Marie Sexton, Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, just to name a few. You can find her on Twitter: @kaetrin67.

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