One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London

COOL COVER!

Title: One to Watch
Author: Kate Stayman-London
Release Date: 2020
Genre: Rom-com and reality TV revisionist history
Describe it in a sentence: 
A plus-size blogger is chosen to be the equivalent of the Bachelorette, and the ugliest parts of America and dating are exposed
TV/movie character who would like it: Honestly? Clare Crawley, because her age is stigmatized on this season of The Bachelorette

It happened in January of 2016, my induction into Bachelor Nation. I didn’t even think it would happen. I went into Ben Hiiggins’ season haughty and skeptical. Now, I am a believer—not only in the Bachelor and Bachelorette as a form of entertainment, but as a method of meeting a romantic partner.

I also believe the show reflects back the ugliest and most entrenched principles of our dating practices. Dating and love stories are often relegated to the women’s sphere (re: the frivolous and unimportant), but they are literally the engine with which society propagates itself. How we date, and interrogatiing guiding compasses people use while dating, are essential acts.

Which is why I appreciated One to Watch, Kate Stayman-London’s debut novel, so much. In addition to being a well-written book that I cut through like it was, say, melted honey (GO WITH IT), One to Watch made me think hard about love stories—and who, normally, gets to have them center stage.

Bachelor cast aka army of competing Instagram accounts

Look, let’s get this out of the way: The contestants on the Bachelor and Bachelorette uniformly adhere to the Instagram standard of beauty, Barbies and Kens of the internet age, all polar white veneers and hungry eyes calculating the viability of a career selling products with spon-con.

The truth is, and an alien who landed on earth and learned about dating via the Bachelor never would get this, you do not have to be conventionally attractive to find love. Yep, extreme conventional beauty is not a prerequisite for love. I know! Shocking.

One to Watch does what I wish the Bachelor would: Opens up the casting of this love show to make the cast representative of real people, and show that real people are worth of love.

Not that Bea isn’t beautiful! She is. She’s a passionate fashion blogger, and the first-ever plus size contestant on The Main Squeeze (essentially The Bachelorette). But she’s not stick-thin. And when men exit the limo and see her, some can’t hide their shock, since the show has made displaying leads with a certain physique a constant as, say, palm trees in Miami.

The reason One to Watch‘s love story feels so earned is because it does go to dark places, like the men exiting the limo—Stayman-London doesn’t shy away from imagining the ugliness that might emerge from this situation. But she also shows the joy! Bea has multiple love “journeys,” to co-opt a Bachelorette term, and multiple (attractive) men who desire her, just like any other Bachelorette.

The book’s structure also provided a welcome break from the normal rom-com set-up, in that there were multiple suitors. I was honestly guessing which suitor she’d end up with (and reader, I guessed wrong). ALSO THERE IS A PERSON IN THIS BOOK WHOM I HATE VEHEMENTLY. And that is all I’ll say. But when I think of this character, I turn into a blazing flame-head. An Aries, and I’m a Cancer! OK, I can’t think about this guy, it’s bad for my health. But let me know when you get to him.

I could say this is the story of a woman learning to love herself. But Bea does love herself. It’s a story of a woman letting herself be loved, too, because society truly has done a number on many of us, in dictating who is worthy of love. Bea should not be surprised to learn that she is worthy of a partner who smiles when she walks in the room, and accepts her as she is. But she is—and so are you!

Read One to Watch for a charming and thought-provoking book. And if you’re a Bachelor Nation producer, read One to Watch for a re-imagining of where the show can go, and what it could be. Love isn’t limited to dress size in the real world. So why is it on TV?

Buy One to Watch here.

The Roommate by Rosie Danan

Cool trend defy-ing coover

Title: The Roommate
Author: Rosie Danan, debut author! Go Rosie!
Release Date: 2020
Genre: Rom-com with the lights dimmed and the softcore music playing
Describe it in a sentence: 
A buttoned up WASP blows up her life and moves to L.A., where she learns her fetching new roommate is a…….porn star!
TV/movie character who would like it: Rachel Bloom from Crazy Ex Girlfriend

Hello, friends, writers, readers, countrymen. It’s been a long time since I picked up my place in this blog. But that doesn’t mean I’ve been reading–I have been! A lot! What else is a person to do in a pandemic, aside from read, worry, take temperature, drink wine, and repeat? If you have an answer, let me know. (You can check out my full list of 2020 reads here).

Anyway, I wanted to add blogging and reviewing to my list of activities, hopefully to knock the anxiety-related ones off a pedastal.

An exceptionally long wind-up to my saying that The Roommate is one of many rom-coms and romances that have provided me with solace and companionship this year as my own romantic prospects have dwindled. These books, with their twists and turns really just currents leading me to a guaranteed happy endings, have been more than comfort food. They’ve been escape pods to a universe where things keep getting better, not worse. They’re full of people like Josh and Clara, the characters in The Roommate, who are flawed, yes, but undeniably decent.

The book’s premise is what drew me to The Roommate, ever since I heard about it a few months ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it what draws everyone to The Roommate, actually. It’s provocative: What would it be like to date an adult performer? What would it be like to date as an adult performer?

I found the book’s cheery and wholesome tone to be at odds, occasionally, with the subject matter: I wanted more humor, more sharp prodding at the underlying tension between the characters and their positions on the Great American Pyramd. More Clara freaking out at watching Josh have sex with other women (or at least…broach the topic of jealousy at all!) MORE SEX. But more on that later.

Right, so, the premise: Clara Wheaton is a wealthy WASP from a family with Connecticut pedigree (as in, there are university buildings named after them). In a real Rachel Bloom from Crazy Ex Girlfriend move, she moves across the country to chase down her childhood crush, Everett Bloom, who has a spare room in L.A. Right after she arrives, Everett announces he’s moving, leaving Clara to live with the dimpled stranger he met off Craigslist (Note: I don’t know if he’s supposed to have dimples, but he has them in my head).

Josh, in my head

Enter: Josh Darling, the porn star with a sheen of Midwestern wholesomeness and a heart of gold. (I pictured him as Scott Porter from Friday Night Lights). When Clara learns that her roommate is an adult performer, and holds her breath in so tightly that eventually all of her tightly buttoned up cardigans start to pop.

Until she met Josh, Clara hadn’t given much thought to her own pleasure. Suddenly, it’s all she can think about. They’re both buzzing around at home, constantly horny and yearning, yet unable to give in to each other for different reasons (reminds me of quarantine, TBH).

Finally, these two hyperactive 20-somethings decide to funnel all that energy not into leaping into bed but into…forming a company to teach women to harness their pleasure (and ostensibly give men a GPS to find the clitoris). Their company, Shameless, comes together in rom com-level warp speed, skipping past all the questions I had about logistics. I wanted to know what the product was, its specific pricing, and how they intended to be profitable, okay!

For a book abut embracing pleasure the two characters sure do a good job of denying themselves pleasure constantly. Part of this is for the same reason that allows rom-coms (or most of them) to work: None of This Would Happen If You Just Talked To Each Other Honestly. Lots of miscommunications. But ultimately, they’re able to function despite constantly thudding into a wall of lust.

Here’s the thing.

As someone who has been in a dangerously complicated romanic entanglement with a roommate, I can speak on ths.

The situation is IS A LOT MORE AGONIZING IN REAL LIFE than t’s depicted as being in The Roommate. I needed more torture and high-temperature than I got in The Roommate. Especially given their different positions in life.

Clara has real season 1 of Mad Men energy

This might be a good segue for me to say that I didn’t quite buy them as a couple, Josh and Clara. OR, I would’ve bought them, if Josh and Clara had spent more time actually working out their relationship. Namely, he’s a porn star; she’s an Uptown Girl. I needed them to talk about those things. Not sing the equivalent of a Billy Joel song about it and walk into the sunset.

There’s a place where Danan should’ve slowed down and simmered: The couple’s main conflict at the end. Clara publicly denies that Josh is her boyfriend, because she’s ashamed, because he’s a porn star. Eventually, the conversation gets buttoned up—but without the soul-level excavation of societal programming, gender roles, etc. that’s necessary for them to meet on an even playing field of mutual understanding.

I wanted them to talk about finances, and class, and perception, and privilege, and shame—and how all those filtered into pleasure/female pleasure, their favorite topic of conversation. Talk about why Clara never felt that pleasure was something that should be on her checklist (marrying well, instead, was). And why Josh turned to porn instead of a PhD in art history, when he was aimless (he doesn’t have a trust fund).

Then, once they get together as a couple, I wanted to see them deal with bridging those gaps. That, to me, is the fun. Not only the getting together. The working out, too. An example of a romance novel that does the “working out” bit excellently and convincingly For Real by Alexis Hall. The couple, both men, are about 15 years apart—and their age and wealth gap are grappled with throughout the novel. Since they “get together” (ie sleep together) much sooner than Josh and Clara in The Roommate, this couple has time to, well, talk. Their heads aren’t always buzzing with desire.

The premise of The Roommate book is fascinating, as I stated. Inherent to Josh and Clara’s relationship is a lot to figure out, and a lot to teach each other. I wanted to watch them start the process, at least, of figuring out how this relationship would work in the real world—and maybe I would’ve bought them as a couple more. And bought the scene of Clara’s Greenwich parents having Thanksgiving with Josh (THAT is a conversation I needed to see, especially given her need for their approval!)

Do I sound like a fun sucker? I’m sorry if so. The book was a romp and an optimistic page-turner. I appreciated the characters’ definition of “love” as a kind of freedom to be yourself, and be wholly accepted. I totally recommend it for a feminist take on the porn industry, and a rosy portrayal of what could be in adult entertainment.

The Roommate is a worthy read—after all, it’s always a joy to watch women unravel into puddles of pleasure after reigning themselves in for so long. Sort of like Sandy from Grease, though I could never tell if she wanted to be a Greaser or if she was just changing for Danny.

Josh and Clara in his Corvette

Whether Clara changed for Josh or because of Josh (and I think it’s the latter), I’m happy it happened. Another woman who learns to exhale, sink into her body, and enjoy her life. Even if she and Josh don’t work out (WHICH I KNOW isn’t the point of the book), I think she’ll remember that lesson in Greenwich.

Buy The Roommate

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne & The Curse of the “Nice Guy”

514sa3HcecL.jpgTitle: The Hating Game
Author: Sally Thorne
Genre: 
hot hot HOT romance, plus some jokes
Describe it in a sentence: 
Two co-workers at an Australian publishing house think that they hate each other, but it turns out that hate is just masking lakes and lakes of luuust (and eventually maybe love?)
TV/movie character who would like it: This book was pulled straight out of the central romance in Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice and Benedick would see Josh and Lucy and nod knowingly.

I first heard about The Hating Game when I was researching a story about rom-com books for Refinery29. Thorne’s debut novel pre-dates the current rom-com resurgence by a few years. This book came out all the way back in 2016; it’s only now that rom-coms are flooding the market with their cute illustrated covers. These covers mask a whole lot of sexiness, you guys. Because This. Book. Is. SEXY!

Lucy and Joshua are co-workers at Bexley and Gamin, a publishing house that had merged a few years prior. Just as Bexley and Gamin had two different governing philosophies, so do Lucy and Joshua. They’re polar opposites (for more reasons than their height difference). Josh is a neat freak, uptight, seething, grouch. Everyone in the office is afraid of him. Lucy makes it her job to be professionally agreeable — to everyone except Josh. When the book kicks off, Lucy and Josh are regularly throwing insults and each other and racking up HR violations (TBH they do not work in the healthiest work environment – their bosses pit them against each other in a race for a promotion and it’s very corporate Hunger Games).

Don’t be fooled by their friction. Friction fuels fire! The more these two good-looking leads combat each other, the more other feelings grow. Lucy finds herself drowning in her all-consuming hatred for Josh, and then the weird feelings of affection that sprout the more she looks into his eyes.

Sally Thorne is great at writing rom-coms. I would read her rom-coms for days. Quippy dialogue, singular characters, plot that traipses along in between “the good parts” (and you know what the good parts are. I believe in Lucy and Josh’s chemistry.

BUT. I totally worry for them! I worry for their emotional intelligence! First of all, it’s not healthy to fill up your days with a deep and wild hatred for your coworker. Second of all, Josh makes being a “nice guy” out to be like, the worst trait in the world. In the book, “nice” is code for boring, dull, safe, etc. Josh is not expressly “nice” but he will love Lucy with scary intensity. And somehow that is a fair exchange? A loyal pitbull man instead of a friendly golden retriever.

Admittedly, I have historically been drawn to guys like Josh. Guys who make you bend over backwards to crumple their intensity. Cold guys, who make you so hungry for affection that you’ll blush at a smile. Stubborn guys who don’t deviate from their own code of ethics. Hard-working guys who promise they’ll take you where they’re going — so long as you play by their rules. My relationships ended when I had to ask for the simple request: Please be kind to me.

Guys like Josh can be sexy! But the whole book I kept saying to myself – Lucy, be careful! Yes, he makes you feel special now — but only because he’s been a total ass for so many years. Maybe I’m reading too far into this? But the “gruff asshole is secretly a kind softie” is a trope that I see work out in a lot of books, but not necessarily in real life. What do you think?

Overall, I definitely recommend The Hating Game, if you take the relationship with a grain of salt, and not as a model. Here’s hoping that Josh is kind to her as his relationship with Lucy continues (and that he doesn’t turn into his father!)