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Beautiful Player coverBeautiful Player is a 2013 novel from Pocket Books, by Christina Lauren, a pseudonym for a pair of writers. The cover blurb promised a hilarious depiction of modern dating. Um, no. This is mostly a collection of steamy scenes that is fun sexual fantasy, wrapped in a deeply conservative plot.

Hanna is a twenty-three-year-old sciences grad student, with no social life or skills, who spends all her time in the lab. She’s dated a bit, but has not had any serious relationships, and wants to focus on school. She does not work, but does not seem to have any debts or money concerns, and lives alone in a Manhattan apartment owned by her parents. Her family pressures her to start dating (hmm), and suggests she contact Will for advice.

Will is a thirty-year-old who looks hot and does something high paying in an office. This is a later book in a series, and apparently he was introduced earlier. Will visited with Hanna’s family a few times when she was a teen, and she developed a crush on him, but they have not seen each other for years. He has a reputation as a player. As the story begins, he is seeing one lady Tuesday nights, and one lady Saturday nights, but starting to find the routine rather dull, and has noticed his friends are settling down (as I said, later book in a series). Will and Hanna meet, and he agrees to help her develop dating skills.

This is a friends become lovers plot; specifically, the variation where the safe friend teaches you how to be a lover, and ceases to be the safe friend. What distinguishes it here is copious amounts of sex, of the female sexual awakening variety.

Hanna is not a virgin, in a nod to contemporary lifestyles, but her sexual experiences have been brief, dull, and limited. She’s a virgin for all narrative intents and purposes. She has a remarkable sexual curiosity, but did not explore it with any past lovers, and until she gets together with Will, her work was her focus. Once she and Will decide to be friends with benefits, she is eager to try every position and act, and suddenly sex seems to her focus. The demands of grad school fade away.

Meanwhile, Will is eager to satisfy her – she has large breasts, and keeps asking about things she’s seen in online porn videos. He’s never been friends with any of the women he’s bedded, so spending non-sexual time with a woman is new to him, but he’s also apparently never been with a woman who needed his help with anything. In other words, he was not attracted to independent women, but infatuated with one who worshipped him years ago, and has come to him for help.

Hanna’s sudden interest in sex seems a little odd, but Will offers the perfect chance for her to explore sexuality without risks or the challenges of a relationship. I can appreciate the appeal of this. What’s troubling though is that Will is not just a sexual tutor, but a lifestyle coach. Will runs every morning, and invites her to join him. At first, she finds this challenging, but she gradually loses a little weight and tones up. Will also asks the girlfriends of his friends to take her shopping for clothing, including better bras. When a guy at a party asks her out, is it her new sexual confidence, or her improved figure and better supported breasts? We know it’s not her apparently impressive research skills.

A happy ending usually means the couple coming together, but in this case I wanted Hanna to thank Will for the sexual initiations, and start her own decade of playing the field. But the story is too conservative for that. Not that I cared much for either of the characters – the assortative mating habits of rich and beautiful people are not that interesting, they have few interests apart from work and sex, and the relationship obstacles here are so minor there are never any doubts. This is nothing like the dating I’ve experienced, or that of younger friends I know. Being friends with benefits has challenges and awkwardness, which are humourously portrayed here, but all relationships have challenges and awkwardness.

Lauren writes well. There’s lots of fun dialogue, thanks largely to Hanna’s uninhibited manner of speaking, and the sexual tension of escalating acts, though the descriptions themselves get a bit tiresome. Yes, she’s wet, he’s hard…I know. That’s usually how sexual arousal goes. And after the first time they never thought it could be like this, why do they keep getting surprised? The chapters are alternating points of few, which helps maintain reader interest, though I found the use of different typefaces distracting rather than helpful.

I’ve nothing against erotica, but when it’s paired with a very traditional relationship (parents encourage daughter to connect with older man acceptable to family), and the woman’s impressive intellect is considered less attractive than big breasts in a good bra, I begin to suspect I’m being fed candy coated asparagus. A sweet romance of equal partners is ultimately hotter, and more modern, than a sexy tale of a nice girl who reforms the rake.