You know what’s hot? Someone who can fix stuff. Specifically, someone who can fix cars. You can keep your cowboys (I have no yard, let alone cows), your FBI agents (thankfully, I have no drug kingpins trying to kill me), and your vampires (I have low iron, so that’s pretty much a non-starter). All any of us really need is someone who can tell when the Les Schwab guy holding up an air filter that “desperately needs to be replaced” is full of shit. But Marie Harte’s Test Drive isn’t just about a mechanic. It’s about a sexy mechanic who’s nice to strippers and doesn’t mind a lady driver. So, yeah. Pretty much the dream, amirite?
Type: Contemporary romance set in Seattle. People who work at Starbucks, Amazon, and Microsoft do have cars, you guys.
The couple: Johnny Devlin is a badass who fixes cars, has a lot of sex, hangs with his fellow mechanics, and helps out at his dad’s strip club. But it’s cool – his dad likes ladies and bought a strip club, and the strippers are like family. We’ve all been there. Johnny also manages to find a significant amount of time to spend at a bar pining after Lara Valley, a bartender/nursing student who spends her time studying, helping her family, and being too smart to fall for a womanizer like Johnny. For at least a solid 3 chapters.
The tropes: Abandonment issues, damsel in distress, hero with a checkered past and a heart of gold. Or at least a really shiny copper.
The story: Johnny likes Lara, but he has a bunch of abandonment issues from all of his father’s broken relationships. Lara is interested in Johnny, but is trying to focus on getting her degree, and she can’t be doing the whole “girlfriend” thing. So it will never work. Except that then Lara’s terrible asshole former brother-in-law attacks her, Johnny saves her, and they decide to start dating. Don’t worry, it kind of makes sense in context. But they still have all of the baggage, so it’s not smooth sailing. It never is, friends.
How’s the sex? Inevitable. There’s a pretty common trope in romance where two people decide to be fuck buddies – pardon my language, friends with benefits – and then accidentally develop feelings for each other. The opposite happens here. Early on, Johnny and Lara keep trying to not have sex so they can build their relationship, but they end up having a lot of sex anyway. A REAL lot. It’s almost like they’re not really trying that hard to hold off on having sex, if you can even imagine such a thing.
Is this book for you? There are a lot of things, even aside from the sexy mechanic, that Test Drive does right. I like that there are real struggles with money and family in this book. Too often family members are either perfect, completely irredeemable, or dead (saving them the trouble of having to be either of the first two) and in this book, Harte has done justice to real life challenges.
But just because the challenges are real doesn’t mean the expectations have to be so low that anyone who is a step above mediocre becomes a hero. Johnny and Lara both seem to think he deserves cookies and a pat on the back for not being a misogynistic asshole. He doesn’t mind letting Lara drive. He helps her watch her nieces when her sister is in a bind. He helps make sure the strippers working for his father don’t get assaulted. All of those are things a normal adult human would do, but they’re sold as swoon-worthy traits when it comes to Johnny. I mean, he seems fine, and like I said, I’m all in on a guy who can change my oil. But clearing a low bar, even if you do it with a bunch of sexy tattoos, is still just clearing a low bar.
Also, can we talk for a minute about male dialogue in female-written romance? In fairness, this isn’t just a Marie Hart problem, and God knows English Lit classes are full of books by dudes who have no idea how women speak or are. But there’s a real epidemic in romance of authors who seem to draw their male dialogue from old episodes of Boy Meets World. Adult men in 2016, especially ones who are this socially savvy, don’t use the term “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” They don’t nickname each other “badass bros.” And I’m pretty sure that no one who is sexually active of any age or gender uses the term “numbnuts.”
Conclusion: Test Drive is solid in a lot of ways. The storytelling is good, many of the conflicts ring true, and it scratches the “bad guy gets the shit kicked out of him” itch. But I’m not convinced that Johnny, for all his charm and low-level feminism, is good for much more than servicing the transmission. And possibly also “servicing the transmission.”