Like many people, I have been unable to read much during this pandemic year. I haven’t read a single one of my book club’s books this year. I did not finish almost everything I started (with rare exceptions I talked about here).
But a few books have stood out to me, bright spots in an otherwise difficult year, and I’ll be reviewing them over the next couple of weeks. My reviews tend to be long, so I apologize in advance. Some spoilers ahead.
SPOILER ALERT by Olivia Dade
To me, the best contemporary romance novels start with a quirky set up that makes you think, “Oh, wouldn’t that be amazing in real life?!” SPOILER ALERT does just that with a TV-show hero and an admiring fan.
I know, right? How many times have you imagined meeting your celebrity crush IRL?
April is a geologist who hides a lot from the world, including her fandom obsession with a Game of Thrones-style epic TV series based on the Aeneid. She’s afraid she’ll been looked down on as a frivolous, silly girl if folks find out she is a prolific fanfic author in her spare time.
Marcus is the hunky star of April’s favorite TV show, and the sometime star of her fanfic. An intelligent man, he hides his brains behind the facade of a loveable, good-natured airhead because that’s what celebrity culture demands of him (he refers to his professional persona as a golden retriever). He relieves the pressure of this disconnect by writing fanfic that, in his mind, fixes the problems that the showrunners are causing through their scripts. Aside from the potential for embarrassment, Marcus also knows that his exposure as a fanfic writer, especially as one critical of the show, would be a violation of his contract and perhaps end his career.
When April decides the time has come to reveal herself — yes, I do attend cons and cosplay characters from that show — she posts a picture of herself in her form-fitting, handmade costume on social media. Because she is not stick-thin, she becomes the target of trolls. Marcus, with the power of his celebrity behind him, confronts the trolls and praises April’s beauty publicly. When the trolls taunt him that he, a famous hottie, would never be seen with such a woman, he asks April on a date.
Oh, hang on, did I mention that April and Marcus, under their user names, are already critique partners and close friends on the fanfic site? Such a delicious complication!
April’s job as a geologist is mined (pun intended) by the author for metaphors about love and personal growth, as well as to show us that April is an admired professional. She doesn’t need to apologize for anything, and much her journey in this book is recognizing that. Similarly, the Aeneid story frames and furthers April and Marcus’s emotional journeys. The author is as intelligent and competent as her characters, making this book a delight to read.
SPOILER ALERT is smart, complete, and deep, while also managing to be joyful, fun, and swoony-romantic. Everything you could want in a romance… or any novel, TBH.
Stop reading here if you don’t want to be spoiled…
Spoiler/CW body image: April’s relationship with her body — and how she is perceived because of it — resonated with me as a reader. Not only because I am also heavy for my frame, but also because the book so carefully and thoughtfully demonstrates all of the ways in which we harm each other with well-intentioned comments (micro-aggressions). Like April, I grew up with a mother who said such things, and I repeat those words in my head all the time. That element of the book was eye-opening for me.
Spoiler/CW dyslexia: Marcus, too, receives messages about his worth (or lack thereof) from his parents, both accomplished academics who are openly and pointedly disappointed in their golden retriever of a son. Since he was young, they have pelted him with criticism about being “unfocused” or “not trying hard enough,” but in fact he was dealing with undiagnosed dyslexia. Again, the messages we send each other in the name of “helping” are placed front and center in this book, which leaves you with an uplifting sense of compassion, understanding, and healing. We can be kinder. It doesn’t have to be like this.