Book Review: Pirouettes and Promises Series by Deborah Wynne (Opening Act and Intermission)

*Post will be updated when the third book in the series is released.

Opening Act, Book One

The story begins with Isabella “Izzy” Roccine arriving in New York City with a few belongings and a whole lot of hope. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to pack up and pursue your dreams in the fast-paced pre-pandemic bustle of the Big Apple, the setup will immediately pull you in. Izzy is a dancer, and she’s getting her shot on the Broadway stage. Within the first few pages, we meet Jazmin, a spirited cabbie who becomes an even more spirited friend. We also “meet” Marcie, although I say this with a smile because the larger-than-life pink lady that helps Izzy get settled in the city does it all from exotic locations with letters, notes, and phone calls. The important thing about this opening scene, Izzy’s face pressed against the glass taking in the City while Jazmin acts as tour guide and Marcie’s letter of instruction about her new apartment sits in her lap, is that–while this is a love story–it’s first and foremost Izzy’s story, and her budding friendships and personal journey are our opening image for a reason.

When Izzy arrives at her new apartment, courtesy of the enigmatic Marcie, a glorious man in his boxer shorts saves her from the fallout of loudly lugging heavy boxes up to the fourth floor step-by-step. His name is Brandon O’Conner, and if it isn’t obvious from the meet cute, he’s about to become her one-and-only. Brandon is a firefighter with a delicious sense of humor and the authenticity of a man with real confidence, the kind that seems more humble than arrogant. As Izzy unpacks her belongings and starts to nest in her new (very pink) space, they fall quickly into a comfortable routine. At this point in the story, I noted the parallels between Izzy’s nesting and the birth of a new life: her Broadway show, her new (and first) love. But what would a story be without a little conflict?

For major spoilers, read on:

Izzy is a virgin, and she’s a little too aware of it. Her relationship with Brandon is easy, but telling him her sexual history (or lack thereof) is not. After consuming a little too much alcohol one night, she wants to go for it and tells him the truth. He recoils, and his response is devastating. He leaves, and Izzy spends most of the night being sick and feeling terrible about what happened. When she tries to make amends the next day, his ex-girlfriend answers the door and tells her they’re back together. Izzy is shocked and heartbroken, but she draws on her fortitude and refuses to take his calls or apologies.

I was pleased that Wynne wrote this kind of outcome for Izzy’s first attempt at sex; I think the archetype of the virginal ingénue is often overused, and I enjoyed this instance of sexual innocence being used as a tool for conflict and character growth instead of as a catalyst for even more male lust/adoration. It would have been too easy for Brandon to have accepted the offer–and some literature would suggest he’d have done it with a flash in his eyes and a real sense of urgency, because there’s nothing hotter than a virgin.

Wynne writes this wrenching break-up well, with just a hint that it’s all a big misunderstanding. And lucky for us, it leads Izzy straight to Ashe Cramer, a character she’s introduced in the third chapter from his own point of view. Ashe is a handsome, wealthy widow… and he’s also a porn star, specializing in deflowering virgins. I absolutely reveled in the descriptions of Ashe getting ready for work. Finally, a man has to do as much physical preparation as a woman to be valuable. I literally grinned by way through descriptions of Ashe primping as much as any woman before a red carpet event, from shaving to trimming to tanning. In contrast, while Izzy does have a penchant for over-thinking her outfits, her preparations (at least on the page) are kept to a minimum. Thank you, Deborah! Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Izzy first hears about Ashe, or the concept of Ashe, from Brandon’s sister at a wedding. She decides to seek him out for her first sexual experience so she’ll never face the same humiliation again. Even though Ashe is starting to break away from his role as a porn star and expert first-time lover to focus on management of the production company, his partner convinces him to fulfill her request, sight unseen. It’s another perfect setup, because Ashe has already seen Izzy–he just doesn’t realize it. Back at the wedding, when Izzy first learned about women paying men for their first time, she was with Brandon and deeply in love. Ashe photographed the wedding, and he was fixated on her and the deep connection he could feel and see between them.

Now it gets complicated. The sex is great, Ashe develops some serious feelings, and he finds Izzy at her Broadway show backstage. He reveals that his porn name is fake and his real identity is a bit fake too (glasses he doesn’t need, for example) to avoid being recognized. He’s not just wealthy from his outrageously successful sex tapes; it turns out he’s also from an old-money family, and it’s important he’s not unmasked at a society event. Izzy is skeptical, but Ashe wants a date and he’s not one to back down. Date they do, and though Ashe is charming and intelligent, he’s no Brandon. The electric chemistry, the witty banter, the easiness; Izzy can’t help but compare them, and inside she aches for the man that refused her. For his part, Ashe is generous, and did I already mention they have great sex? Well, the sex just keeps getting better.

Meanwhile, back on Broadway, Izzy is dealing with an insufferable diva, and eventually the closure of her show. Without much money and no leads on a new job, Ashe becomes a crutch that Izzy can’t quick let go of. She has other options, like moving back home, but Ashe offers to pay her bills, and then takes it a step farther and offers to do it forever as her husband. Izzy is practical, and between the great sex and the promise of wealth and adoration, she accepts. The wedding bells start ringing in our ears as they plan their elaborate nuptials and jet-set honeymoon. This entire plot could have been fallen apart if it weren’t for Wynne’s depth. Izzy isn’t a gold digger, she’s a kind and gentle person. She doesn’t want to hurt Ashe, and although he’s never said he loves her, she knows how important she is in his life, and how broken his spirit is due to the loss of his first wife. She’s also humble, and refusing anything so wonderful seems like hubris.

In a swift and juicy turn of events, when Izzy goes back to her old apartment to pack and mourn the anniversary of her mother’s death, she gets sick. Ashe, traumatized by his wife dying from illness, steels himself against her and doesn’t even traverse the eleven blocks to her apartment to take care of her. Brandon and his family step in, and when she’s finally lucid, Izzy learns it was all just a misunderstanding. Their love never died, it was just buried, and it resurfaces tenfold. Committed to setting things right, Izzy mercifully breaks it off with Ashe. As if blessed by the Gods, she’s then rewarded with a callback, and Brandon helps get her in shape to perfectly execute an almost impossible dance number, sealing her stardom.

Mega spoiler:

Not all love stories last a lifetime. Wynne plays with time for our ending, and it’s revealed that Brandon died heroically in a fire, leaving Izzy and a beautiful daughter behind. Izzy is comforted by Brandon’s loving family and her own dear friends, but she isn’t single either. As fate would have it, Ashe took the time away from Izzy to truly heal, and he’s a warmer man when they meet again. Love grows in the space Brandon left behind, and Ashe steps in as a father and husband seamlessly. Both widowed, both hopeful again, Izzy, Ashe, and Chloe embark on a new journey to Los Angeles, and our story closes where it began: Izzy on an airplane, chasing her dreams.

Of course, I left a lot of things out, so I suggest you pick up this book for yourself and tell me all the things you would’ve talked about. Here’s the Goodreads link. You can find buy links on that page, or you can rent it from you local library. Friendly note: if they don’t have it at the library, request it. Most librarians will fulfill requests, or at least consider it. 🙂

Intermission

If you loved the descriptions of New York and Izzy’s decorating in Opening Act, you’re going to love Intermission even more. Our heroine is now in L.A., with a modern (minimally pink) mansion to redecorate courtesy of Marcie. Family flies in from everywhere to help get her setup, because in addition to working with Ashe on their house, Izzy is also starring in the film adaption of the hit show she headlined back in New York, and Ashe’s new company is producing it. In the midst of all that activity, a threat looms.

Izzy isn’t used to being wealthy, and the security precautions Ashe wants to take at their new home seem like a little too much for a relatively unknown actress and producer. When she’s surrounded at the airport upon arrival by paparazzi more intense than those she’s encountered in New York, Izzy acquiesces, but around-the-clock bodyguards are still an adjustment. I figured this was leading to some kind of awful event, and sure enough, there’s a kidnapping attempt on Chloe. In the aftermath, we find out that a former porn actress that lied to Ashe and his partner might be involved, and that she and some co-conspirators have been trying to blackmail him. While that situation feels pretty well wrapped up, the tension lingers.

As production continues, Izzy finds out she’s pregnant. Even better: it’s twins! As she grows, so too do the demands on their perfect life together. Ashe’s parents die abroad in an accident, and both he and Izzy are thrown into a myriad of duties as they take the helm of multiple businesses, foundations, and properties. Though there’s already quite a lot on Izzy’s plate here, she shines in this role, and she’s able to hire a little help to get things done. Once again, Izzy isn’t just nesting, she’s birthing a new life: Izzy the CEO, the philanthropist, the actress, the producer. I couldn’t be prouder, because obviously she’s a real person.

For major spoilers read on:

It isn’t long before we realize why the tension has never quite dissipated after that kidnapping. Remember Jenna from Opening Act? She was Brandon’s massage-therapist ex-girlfriend. Well, it turns out she was also JJ, the first female Ashe spent time with after his wife died. She always struck me as pushy and manipulative (who tells a man to take down his picture of his wife before he’s ready?), and now she’s borrowing money from Ashe to help her business. He feels guilty for turning her down back then, he’s got plenty of money, and he doesn’t realize she’s also Brandon’s Jenna. He writes her hateful attitude toward Izzy off, thinking it’s only related to her missed shot with him. It turns out Izzy has “taken” two men, and if Jenna can’t have what she wants, no one can. She lies her way into their house, right past their formidable security, and shoots Ashe in his sound-proofed office (an artifact of the previous owner’s sex dungeon). It’s a pretty gruesome scene, made more harrowing by Ashe’s dying thoughts.

Izzy is the one to find him, just after leaving her public first excursion post-birth. If that’s not the perfect way to remember how scary the world is, and to cement a desire to stay at home with your babies, I don’t know what is. We didn’t see much of Izzy’s grief about Brandon in Opening Act, and we don’t see much for Ashe in Intermission, largely because his death means that Izzy is now the sole heir of the Cramer fortune and estate, and a new partner at Ashe’s production company and she has a lot to do. She’s also trying to be strong for Chloe and her brand-new boys, and she succeeds in fulfilling all those roles with grace. We know from experience, and from the hints that Wynne leaves us that Izzy’s stoicism is unsustainable, but it’ll take something special to break her out of her steely façade.

Enter Callen Stone. He’s a Hollywood playboy, renowned actor, and the leading man of a film Ashe was working on before he died. Izzy wants to see the project through, and thank the Gods she does because Callen is a hunk. Brandon was sweet and strong, beautiful and brave. Ashe was mysterious, generous, pragmatic, and… is it okay to focus on how great he was in bed now that’s he’s dead? Oh well, I said what I said. It’d be hard to compare to either one of them, but Callen is a league of his own. Sexy, a little arrogant, charismatic; it’s easy to see how, after only a few conversations, Callen becomes Izzy’s date to a benefit. It only gets better when we find out he can dance!

And dance they do. Izzy and Callen dance through a romance as she rebuilds her life in New York once again. The loft that she and Ashe once lived in becomes the headquarters of everything Izzy. Ensconced within its walls are her production company offices, foundation offices, a gym, a salon–you name it, it’s in there. I’d feel the same way about making work convenient to my family so I could spend more time with them, especially after what happened to Ashe back in L.A. I haven’t mentioned Lawrence or Bear or any of the fine people Izzy’s leaning on during this upheaval, but rest assured she has support.

At first, Callen breezes in for benefits and quick trips on the weekend while Izzy’s kids are with Brandon’s parents out at the Cramer estate. As things get more serious, he meets the whole family. On that same trip, he also sees more of Izzy’s grief, and how much she still hasn’t processed. He understands, more than some men might, and it’s looking like Izzy is just about to seize hold of her third chance at love and never let go when she pulls the plug. Callen isn’t available enough, his schedule means he’s only around every few months, and she and her kids deserve more. He’s perfect, but it’s not the perfect lifestyle. That Izzy can recognize this and put her needs, and her children’s needs first is a testament to the self-esteem she’s always had.

Mega spoiler:

Even with a breakup montage that takes us through a bitter back-and-forth in the tabloids, Izzy and Callen find each other again. His role as an agitator, and a man that’s willing to challenge Izzy more than any man that’s come before is fully flushed out in the end. He adores Izzy, but that doesn’t mean he’ll sacrifice his career for her or bow down on every request to keep her happy. In seeing this, we realize how protected she’s been her whole life, both by her parents (her mom didn’t tell her she was a lesbian before she died) and by her lovers. This lack of protection, and fierce honesty, is the perfect match for this new iteration of Izzy–and she knows it.

Wynne expertly arranges our closing image to parallel the opening again: on an airplane, full of hope. Callen has agreed to sign a contract to work on the film Ashe so badly wanted made, and he’s going to do it living with Izzy in New York City. She has everything she’s ever wanted, and she wears that kind of gift with the upmost aplomb.

If I know anything, and don’t take that to mean I do, the next installment is going to be the best yet. I cannot wait!

Here’s the link to Intermission on Goodreads. Again, you can also request this at your local library or your local independent bookstore. I can’t wait to hear what you think!

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