The Hating Game (a sort of review)

by Sunita

Work has been eating up my every waking moment for the last few weeks, so I’m behind on reading and blogging. I finally took a day off and decided, thanks to an interesting review by Liz at her blog and the subsequent Twitter conversation, to spend part of it reading the latest Hot New Romance. I encourage you to read Liz’s post as well as her discussion with Vassiliki (and also Vassiliki’s review).

This book got a ton of buzz in romance circles when it came out, and it has a load of 5-star reviews at GR and Amazon. I love a good enemies-to-lovers story, but the enemies part has to be well motivated for it to work. This wasn’t. The MCs are assistants to co-CEOs who hate each other (both the assistants and the CEOs hate each other), and aside from that tension, the main reason for their apparent mutual loathing seems to be that they have opposite personalities but are forced to work together after a merger that saved both firms.

I came close to DNFing in the first 75 pages, because I found the setup and the female MC, Lucy, so unappealing. If you take the workplace setting and rivalry as fantasy it is more palatable, but the text implies Lucy is adorable and likeable and I found her to be neither. But once Lucy and Josh stop needling each other and drop their guards a bit, the book improves. The romantic scenes between them are quite sweet.

Overall, though, the book is a misfire. The setting has been scrubbed of any identifying characteristics, so it could be set anywhere with English-speaking white people. Sometimes it feels Australian like the author, sometimes British, sometimes American. Mostly it’s a white fantasyland, which is fine but a bit sterile. There are some weird choices, for example Lucy’s parents own a strawberry farm and that apparently makes her an object of ridicule (there are no organic-food hipsters or farmers’ market aficionados in this world).

The story and characters are straight out of a contemporary category romance. When the story begins they are workplace rivals who seem to find each other hot despite the hate, then they are thrown together (team-building exercise and illness), and then Lucy is Josh’s plus-one at his brother’s wedding. I know I’ve read this wedding/faux-date setup before, in a Liz Fielding, or Fiona Harper, or Marion Lennox, romance. I enjoyed it there and I mostly enjoyed it here, except for the breakfast scene. That was way over the top.

But then, Lucy is over the top. She’s one of those romance heroines who is supposed to be adorable but would be a nightmare in real life. She judges everyone in terms of their physical appearance and denigrates every body type she doesn’t want to emulate or shag. Older coworkers (except for her chic French boss) are heavy, dumpy, gross, and unfashionable (reading this book I learned that there is something called a “Tibetan poncho.” Who knew?). Short stature in a man equals weakness and fragility. The most egregious insults seem to have been scrubbed from the version of the ebook that is currently on sale (see Kelly’s spot-on review for a discussion of these), but there are plenty more sprinkled through it (if you recoil at the use of the term “lame” as an adjective for behavior, this book is not for you).

In real life Lucy’s level of insecurity calls for therapy. I’m kind of surprised that in a book published in 2016 it lands you a hot, smart, kind man with a gorgeous apartment and great cooking skills.

Josh is your standard-issue sweetheart underneath all the insults he throws at Lucy. All his so-called flaws flow from Daddy issues and one adorable psychological trait (which is not so adorable for real people, but here it’s the equivalent of having humility as your worst flaw). Even my Grinchish heart melted a couple of times at his words and actions. Honestly, I thought he deserved better than Lucy, or at least pre-therapy Lucy.

As I said earlier, the romantic scenes between Josh and Lucy are quite sweet (apart from her fixation with his Giant Manly Muscles), and the development of their relationship between when he takes care of an ill Lucy and their time at the wedding is enjoyable to read. But all the stuff around it required deep breaths on my part.

Given this book is 50 pages longer (at least) than a category romance, it was especially odd that there were almost no secondary characters. Lucy and Josh have no friends, and the women are either caricatures or Loving Mother types (including Josh’s mother, who had a successful career as a heart transplant surgeon but is depicted primarily as the family peacemaker).

If you are OK with a story in which meanness and snark turns into goopy romance, this book traverses that spectrum. I went from finding the leads repellent to feeling like I’d read chunks of this book before.

Oh, and it’s 1st POV, present tense. I didn’t notice it that much, but it’s there, and it probably adds to the New Adult/Chick Lit flavor, although frankly if two people are supposed to be qualified to be COOs of a major publishing house, they’ve come of age.

This is my third straight misfire with books that were positively reviewed by reading buddies with whom I usually share romance-novel tastes. At this point I’m pretty sure it’s not the books, it’s me. I think I will stick to not-romance and autobuy romance authors for a while. I don’t know if it’s burnout or what, but I don’t seem to be seeing what everyone else is in these texts.