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Tailgating in the parking lot, holding your breath when the QB throws a Hail Mary, guilt-inspired discussions of concussion protocol: football season has finally returned. And what better way to kick off the 2015 NFL season than with a classic Susan Elizabeth Phillips sports romance, wherein a blonde bombshell who doesn’t know a fumble from a field goal inherits her estranged father’s professional football team, complete with self-righteous (and handsome!) head coach? Are you ready for some football-themed romance? Of course you are.

Type: Contemporary adult romance. Well, contemporary-ish. The book was first published in 1994, so although it mostly holds up, modern readers will tag a few of the details as anachronistic, including Christian Slater references, a lack of cell phones, and – my personal favorite – a mention of O.J. Simpson as a postgame interviewer. Ah, the good old days.  

The couple: Phoebe Somerville models in the nude, dresses like Madonna (remember – 1994), and takes her pet poodle to funerals. She smiles and flirts and giggles, BUT – subverted expectations alert! – she’s also clever and determined. Dan Calebow is the icy and mildly misogynistic coach of the football team Phoebe now owns.  He pretty much only cares about football, but he’s set a bit of time aside to find a quiet, plain, gentle woman who will marry him and raise his children. Perhaps you can see where all of this is going.   

Tropes: Sports romance; enemies to lovers; dumb blonde who turns out to be smart; really awful parents; a little bit of damsel in distress.

The story: Phoebe’s father dies, leaving her in temporary custody of his professional football team, the Chicago Stars, and in permanent custody of her teenage half-sister and some pretty serious emotional baggage about what a terrible father he was. Phoebe only keeps the team if the wildly mediocre Stars manage to win a championship game, which everyone agrees is pretty unlikely. But losing the team means it would go to Phoebe’s cousin Reed, who is even more terrible than her father. So, Phoebe and Dan set to work using coaching, flirting, and a heavy dose of magical thinking to make their rag tag Stars into champions. All while doing a little scoring of their own (I’m sorry). 

How’s the sex? Susan Elizabeth Phillips uses the sex in It Had To Be You to add depth to the story more successfully than romance authors usually manage. Perhaps most interestingly to a reader in 2015, the 1994 setting of the book means the AIDS crisis plays a role in a way that I haven’t seen in romance novels written more recently. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to stories of today, wherein everyone uses protection without really having to discuss why.

Phoebe and Dan also each have complicated sexual histories. Readers find out early in the book that Phoebe was sexually assaulted as a teenager. Between that assault and the way her Playboy-ready figure attracts male interest, Phoebe is more than a little worried about being used for sex, and she fosters a reputation for having lots of sex to use as a cover for having almost none. Dan is still getting it on with his ex-wife, whose kinky inclinations make him a little uncomfortable and incredibly confused about what other women are looking for from physical intimacy. The sex in this book is steamy, but it’s also complicated, and it’s not just drama for drama’s sake.  

Is this book for you? Whether It Had To Be You is for you or not probably won’t have a lot to do with whether you know your cornerbacks from your quarterbacks. I’m admittedly a big professional football fan and though I liked the book, it wasn’t mainly for reasons related to football.

First, it’s a credit to Phillips that she doesn’t sprinkle quite as much fairy dust as you often see in romance novels. Leaning heavily on the magic of love and the healing power of a wink and a smile can be easy and lazy, and this version of romance is neither of those things. Phoebe and Dan have chemistry, and they turn out to be pretty compatible, but there’s a lot of fighting, misunderstanding, and hurt feelings along the way. You get the sense that they will actually have to continue to work at their relationship. Don’t get me wrong, trying to throw the ACF Championship is a pretty grand romantic gesture (you’ll understand when you get to chapter 23), but it’s nice to take a break from all the rainbows and shooting stars once in awhile.

Phillips also admits in her author’s note that she’s not really a sports fan, and her outside perspective is probably a big part what makes the story work. Sports romances written by fans can be colored by hero worship, and while Phillips’ portrayal of professional football is generally positive, she doesn’t hesitate to have a little fun. After a scantily clad Phoebe brilliantly flirts and navigates her way through an important business negotiation, she explains to an irritated Dan that she was just doing what any of his players would do: employing her body toward the good of the team. And it’s such a badass move that you kinda want to give her a high five. Or, as might be more suited to the sideline, a smack on the butt.  

Conclusion: It Had To Be You isn’t exactly warm or sweet, but it’s hot and smart. The book is all about balance – winning and losing, humor and gravity, brains and beauty. If you’re not a football fan, there’s still a lot here to like. If you are a fan, it’ll make you grateful on Sundays that there are novels like this to turn to for enjoyment after your team fails to convert on fourth-and-one in overtime. Or whatever your team did this weekend.  

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