Swap by H.K. Carlton
Total-E-Bound Publishing, 2012
Most of us have been there – the unrequited high school crush, the fantasy lover who still haunts our dreams, years after graduation. Usually that wish-he-had-been-the-special-someone disappears from our lives, and the unbearable need fades to a bittersweet memory. For Hailey Hollinger, heroine of H.K. Carlton's novella Swap, things aren't so easy. The object of her secret affection is Michael, her husband Brent's older brother. Michael has been married to Cheryl for eight years, and Hailey loves her own handsome, easy-going spouse, but the family relationship means Hailey has never really had the chance to get over Mike.
Common interests as well as circumstances tend to throw Hailey and Mike together.--> They encourage one another's creativity. She's an author; he's a photographer, or at least would like to be, though his wife disparages his visions of making his living from his art. Hailey has always tried to hide her adulterous fantasies, but somehow, one night after a few drinks, Mike kisses her, and she can't help but respond.
Most of the book chronicles Hailey's and Mike's desperate attempts to remain faithful despite their mutual attraction. Neither of the main characters treats marriage casually. Both want to do the right thing. As time goes on, though, it becomes clear that their physical connection is merely a symptom of the deep emotional bond that connects them. Ultimately, they have no choice but to surrender to their passion and face the consequences.
Swap is a brave book, tackling as it does the uncomfortable topic of infidelity. A few years ago, this subject would have been taboo in a romance. Ms. Carlton does not whitewash the issue, but handles it with an admirable degree of honesty and realism. Hailey and Mike are sympathetic, likable characters. They really try to resist one another, although it's clear to the reader from an early stage that this is futile. In fact, their heroic efforts to “be good” raise the level of sexual tension, as they skirt the edges of adultery, drawing back time and time again from a precipitous fall. When, at last, they do give in, the accumulated frustration makes their coupling all the more intense.
Are two broken marriages incompatible with a happy ending? In Swap, Ms. Carlton avoids this problem by painting Brent as somewhat neglectful of his wife as he pursues his own interests. Meanwhile, Cheryl is portrayed as a sluttish, materialistic harpy. Neither of the jilted spouses really cares all that much when the respective spouses (Hailey and Mike) ask for divorces. In fact, Brent seems unsurprised, having noticed Hailey's attraction to his brother as far back as their wedding. I actually found Brent's reaction plausible. I wish that Cheryl had been an equally realistic character, with both positive and negative traits, rather than a rival-from-hell stereotype.
This is a minor quibble, however. Overall, Swap is full of heat and humanity, an impressive debut from a new author.