In Olivia Dade’s witty and warm new romance, At First Spite, the incredibly named town of Harlot’s Bay in coastal Maryland is the perfect place to start over. That’s good because jilted, 37-year-old Athena Greydon has two graduate degrees, no job and nowhere else to go.
Even before her broken engagement to man-child Dr. Johnny Vine, Athena felt irretrievably lost. Now she’s single, broke and living in the 10-foot-wide spite house she purchased for her would-be hubby, right next door to the brother who convinced him that their marriage would be a disaster. Dr. Matthew Vine seems as orderly, stern and starchy as Athena is chaotic. He doubts Athena’s motivations for moving into the spite house, assuming that she must be harboring hopes of reconciliation with Johnny. And Athena, having overheard Matthew’s unflattering comments about her, harbors resentment. They have plenty of reasons to be wary of each other, but Matthew becomes the perfect friend to help Athena climb out of her hole, and the ensuing magnetic connection is a surprise to them both.
It’s a fine setup, but the beauty lies in the execution. As with her Spoiler Alert series, Dade blends angst and humor into a delicious cocktail of romantic and personal possibility. She develops Athena and Matthew’s love story along two compelling tracks. The first is a tropey, funny enemies-to-lovers story, full of banter, barbs and verbal sparring. The second thread follows Matthew’s opening up and Athena’s hard journey to better mental health and acceptance of her depression. Matthew takes care of Athena when she can’t care for herself, resulting in some of the most lovely and realistic scenes involving mental distress in the genre. The pair’s strengths and vulnerabilities beautifully compliment each other, and the only real gap in credulity is how the lovable and brilliant Athena lacks almost any support network from her old life in Virginia.
That said, the depth of community that surrounds the couple is wonderful, as is Harlot Bay’s backstory. According to lore, the town, originally called Ladywright, was founded in the late 17th-century by two women, and became a haven for others. A British governor renamed the town Harlot’s Bay in condemnation of its founders and citizenry, but “the joke was on him because apparently everyone living there liked the change.” Dade sketches the quirky locale and perfectly imperfect people who live there with the loving care of an author who once worked at Colonial Williamsburg.
A slow-burn love story with rich characters, good humor and emotional intelligence, At First Spite is an excellent choice for romance readers craving depth and realism.