The Wall of Winnipeg and Me by Mariana Zapata, narrated by Callie Dalton

picture of a black football helmet against the hip of a guy in white football pants, on a football fieldWhy I read it:  I really enjoyed Kulti so I queued this one up hoping for another winner. I got it – but I liked Kulti better.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  Vanessa Mazur knows she’s doing the right thing. She shouldn’t feel bad for quitting. Being an assistant/housekeeper/fairy godmother to the top defensive end in the National Football Organization was always supposed to be temporary. She has plans and none of them include washing extra-large underwear longer than necessary.

But when Aiden Graves shows up at her door wanting her to come back, she’s beyond shocked.

For two years, the man known as The Wall of Winnipeg couldn’t find it in him to tell her good morning or congratulate her on her birthday. Now? He’s asking for the unthinkable.

What do you say to the man who is used to getting everything he wants?

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  I was expecting this to be a workplace romance. But, you guys! It was a marriage of convenience story (which is even better in my book). Vanessa Mazur has worked for Aiden Graves as his personal assistant for two years. Her job includes answering his emails, posting on his social media, cooking his vegan meals. He’s terse, uncommunicative and opaque. She’s been saving so that she can pursue her work as a graphic designer. She has been doing graphic design after hours and has finally saved up a year’s salary so that she can launch her own business full time. She’s planning on leaving and even gives notice, but when she overhears Aiden’s shitty manager, Trevor, talking about her and notes that Aiden’s response to Trevor’s words are a big fat zilch, she throws in the towel and leaves immediately.

But after a few weeks, Aiden comes begging. He needs her. Please come back he says. He’ll do anything. She says no. She stays strong. But then he says he has a visa issue and offers a marriage of convenience – 5 years and he will pay off her MASSIVE student loans and buy her a house. It’s too much for her to resist. But she doesn’t work for him again – she’s got her own business now.

At first I thought it was going to be one of those stories where the hero had secretly loved the heroine all along and does all these strange things just to be near her. There is, I think, an element of that but that’s not really what the story was. It was never specifically stated, but Aiden read to me as being on the autism spectrum. He seems to have little understanding of social niceties, he often misses social cues and he is very focused and set in his ways. He is direct and doesn’t bullshit. He finds it hard to understand why others get upset with him when he is blunt and doesn’t follow expected courtesies. There was really only one or two lines late in the book which hinted he may have had stronger feelings for her earlier than Vanessa could ever have imagined, but most of the book stood for the proposition that he grew to really love her after they were married. Exhibit A “I like you as much as I like anyone”. So I really think it was mostly that Aiden started seeing Vanessa as something other than part of the furniture after they were married and after she began to more push back with him. My own theory is that he liked what Vanessa did for him when she worked for him but he didn’t really think of her as a person in her own right until after she quit. Which, actually worked for me better than it would have the other way around all things considered.

Once Vanessa stopped working for Aiden, she felt a little freer to tell him what she thinks when he is out of line. It takes her a while to actually come out and say things – sometimes this annoyed me about her because I really wanted her to get to the point and stop being vague – but when she does, Aiden seems to go through a learning process. Over the course of the book, he learns he can be focused on football and still be a good friend to someone. Eventually, he learns that he can still be good at football and also be in love. He has lived his life so compartmentalised, he has to learn a whole new way of doing things.

Like in Kulti, Aiden doesn’t really change his behaviour except where it pertains to Vanessa. He doesn’t go through a complete character overhaul. But he learns to read Vanessa’s cues and slowly, ever so slowly, he opens up to her and gets her to do the same with him. But even then he is still the same person – he modifies his behaviour in some ways but his essential character is unchanged – merely a bit more revealed.

I preferred Sal (from Kulti) to Vanessa because Sal is more direct and more kickass but I didn’t dislike Vanessa at all. Aiden is a little opaque (okay, very opaque – this is intentional) as the story is told entirely from Vanessa’s point of view. I gleaned a little here and there but it takes a long time before anything is spelled out.

There is sex in the book, but not much and only at the very end. One of the things I was a little concerned about re Aiden is that right until the climax (heh) of the book, I wasn’t sure whether he was even interested in sex. He is a loner and I wondered if he could possibly be asexual. It turns out that the listener was lacking certain important information.

I’m glad the story didn’t make a thing of Vanessa’s friendship with Zach, a fellow football player who is Aiden’s roommate. I also liked Vanessa’s friendship with her bestie, Diana. (Diana shares a surname with Sal from Kulti – are they related? If so, it wasn’t stated.)

Zapata, based entirely on my sample of TWO (LOL), seems to write a different kind of book to the usual. That is not a complaint. But the structure is different. There’s no real black moment – there’s a slow reveal of a relationship which moves inexorably to the HEA. The conflict in the relationship is, essentially, the relationship itself. There are other aspects to the books too – Sal’s soccer, Vanessa’s graphic design, the way she trains to run a marathon, various family issues but in terms of things keeping the h/h apart – well it’s basically because the hero is a bit of a jerk and slowly he learns to stop being a jerk to the heroine.

I don’t think I could read or listen to a steady diet of this kind of book but I have enjoyed these two and I know I will be devouring the rest of Zapata’s backlist in the not too distant future. I like the time she takes to develop a relationship. There is no instalove. I like the journey from something sort-of like enemies to friends to lovers and I like the examination of relationship she gives me in her books. There are times when I want a book which hits me in the feels immediately. There are times when I want a book which builds slowly. Zapata is in the latter category. For me it’s unique and it’s also very, very good.

What else? Callie Dalton did a solid job of the narration. There were times when Aiden had a sort-of German accent, reminiscent of Reiner Kulti, but this was only occasional. What I liked best about the narration is the way Dalton delivers the emotion and tone of the story. The eyerolls and annoyances, the humour and anger, were displayed with pitch perfect delivery. I wouldn’t recommend listening to Kulti and The Wall of Winnipeg and Me one after the other without a break because Sal and Vanessa sound exactly alike and I think it would be hard to differentiate between them. But, with a listening gap, the problem is very minor if a problem at all.

I liked The Wall of Winnipeg and Me very much but I didn’t think the story was as strong as Kulti. I didn’t quite understand why Aiden came to Vanessa with his visa problem at all at the beginning. The way it came across to me, the marriage idea was sparked by something Vanessa said. So why did Aiden even raise his visa issue? What did it have to do with her? I found Aiden more opaque than Kulti and it was harder for me to glean his personality, thoughts and feelings. That said, it’s still a great listen and the payoff for the patient listener is well worth it.

Grade: B/B+

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