Everything is closed, so enjoy a very long review about a book I hated.
Let’s start with the general plot: 25 year old Emily was recently dumped by her boyfriend and lost her job at the bar where she worked. She is aimless and feeling down on herself because she supported said boyfriend through law school and he dumped her as soon as he was out in the world. Fortunately, her (very distant) sister April got into a terrible car accident and needed a full time caregiver, so Emily packed up and went to live with her. April’s daughter wants to do the renn fair this summer, and it turns out that since she’s still young, they require that an adult sign up with her. Emily signs up. Shenanigans ensue.
I hated virtually everything about this book and if I hadn’t decided in my head to review it would have given up on it 20% in. I should really learn my lesson and stop reading books advertised as light romantic comedies.
Let’s start with what I liked:
- The narrator is excellent. Brittany Pressley works hard to elevate the material and I will definitely keep an eye out for her stuff in the future.
- I spent enough time with this book that I now really want to hit a renn fair (like already looking it up in prep for summer), so I’m going to give the book that too.
End of what I liked.
I hated everything else so much I literally lost sleep over it, which I recognise probably says as much about me as it does about the book, but there you have it. At this point, I recommend you skip straight to the end, where I recommend other books if this type of story or narrative style appeals to you. The rest won’t be pretty.
No? Ok. Strap in. This is going to take a while.
- The heroine is a delusional, gaslighting asshole.
Let’s start with Emily, since this is her story (even though it should totally be April’s, who is clearly the far more interesting person). As noted in the plot summary above, Emily is down on her luck. We learn very quickly that she’s absolutely heartbroken over her evil ex Jake, who in the way of assholes, agreed to a plan by which she drops out of her undergrad degree to support him through law school and then when he graduates it’s her “turn”. She was ambitious and was attracted to his ambition, but it turned out he was just using her. Seems bad, but also weird? Like, I get that this type of plan happens – I supported my husband through a masters and a law degree myself. So there’s no way she was making enough tending bar to pay for a US law school and living expenses, so dude was racking up student debt anyway and from the sounds of it, he was planning on ending up at a blue chip firm, so basically anything short of a half a mill in debt he’d be able to pay off in a couple of years. Why did she need to drop out? I’d shrug this off except it comes up over and over and over and it makes no fucking sense at all.
And this relationship just gets weirder. She talks about their Plan and how he Ripped the Rug Out from under her. You want to know the Plan of this Ambitious Woman? She was going to drop out of her English degree, work two jobs tending bar supporting Jake, and once he graduated law school, they’d “be unstoppable.” That’s it. That’s the whole plan. No plan of her going back to school, which is probably fine since she seemed to have no idea what to do once she got it. She wasn’t planning on becoming an entrepreneur, or a really active stay at home mom, or running her own bar, or using that English degree for whatever an ambitious person gets an English degree for (it’s only law school – that’s the full list) It doesn’t sound like she made much of her work tending bar either, she just worked there and then she didn’t. Six years and you’re not even a manager?
Jake would have a law degree and They would be unstoppable. That’s her ambitious nature. Ambition by proxy. Like it’s 1820 and marrying up is as ambitious as you get to be as a woman. So already, I’m seeing red flags that this is an unreliable narrator, but I think, you know, we all kind of cope with stuff like breakups in different ways, and it was probably close enough to being true for the differences to be irrelevant.
Only the red flags appear in every interaction she has with everyone, with Emily constantly retconning what happened in the real world to something that makes her look better in her own head and then resenting real people when they aren’t playing by the script she’s written for them.
Emily and Kate (the niece) show up at the renn fair. Emily doesn’t know Kate has to sign up with an adult yet. She goes full Mean Girl internally mocking the stupid idiots who take this kind of crap seriously (like her niece). Someone hands her a volunteer form and tells her about the parental supervision thing. Emily immediately starts trying to think up ways to get out of it. Then Mitch, a broheem with a nice butt shows up and Emily learns he spends the summer in a kilt and off Emily goes to fill out the form because flirting with a cute guy makes it worth it. Only, of course, when she recounts this incident later, Mitch is conveniently removed and the Whole Reason Emily is at the fair is for her Precious Niece. This kind of minor editing of events is a very common early warning sign that the person you’re dealing with has an If I Feel Something It’s a Fact sort of outlook on the world. It’s also an early indicator of abuse.
So she fills out this form and heads over to hand it in. There we have our meet cute with Simon. She hands him the form and he tells her she filled it out wrong. How does a normal person respond to an administrator telling them they’ve filled out a form incorrectly? Is it to say “oh shit, what do I need to fix?” because that’s not what she said. She said “I think I know how to fill out a form!” Ok Beckie, you precious little unicorn, yes the most plausible explanation is that this complete stranger who is clearly familiar with this form is just fucking with you for Reasons rather than that you missed something on the form. Indeed, she did fill out the form wrong, but now that Simon has pointed this out, WE HATE HIM. Literally. This is why she hates him for a good quarter of the book. Because he pointed out an error on her form.
They’re all told that not everyone who signs up gets a spot but Emily is the heroine so even though she’s already come across as a combative douchenozzle to the guy running the event they put her on the roster. I assume because they feel bad for Kate, who seems like a really nice kid that’s having a really hard time on account of her deadbeat dad and injured mom. On their way home, Kate is so appreciative that Emily signed up, because we’re supposed to like Emily. Kate says her mom probably wouldn’t have signed up even if she knew about the requirement. Emily latches onto this immediately. Yeah! Why is it that this single mom who works full time doesn’t have any “extra-curreculars”?! Unlike Emily, who has so much going on. Oh yeah, this reminded me that she said she had lost her boyfriend and her job, but there was no indication of what happened to this job? And also, if you have 4-6 years of bar tending experience, how hard is it to find another one in a major city? What the hell happened at her job(s)? At this point, I assume that if she isn’t talking about something, it’s because it makes her look like a complete monster, so I’ll go ahead and assume that she burnt down the bar because someone gave her a bad tip. Why not? We never learn the truth. But yes, let’s totally pile on April. She definitely deserves it. (When April realizes what happened, she’s super apologetic and said she had every intention of signing up before her accident, which also makes me think the author hates Emily too because characters pointing out that Emily is a presumptuous asshole is a recurring theme)
Guys, we’re on like chapter 2 here. Fuck I hate this book.
Anyway, flash forward to the next weekend, they start orientation. They show up late because of Emily. Simon starts providing information about how everything will run and Emily promptly settles into chatting with the person next to her about what a buzzkill he is. He catches her speaking and calls her on it. This makes him a monster. Why is he so mean to her?! And when he talks to Kate, who is sweet and earnest and paying attention, he’s not mean at all! WHAT COULD THIS MEAN!
Back to this English degree she is mourning. This is a renn fair. A big part of the training is literary history. She’s still talking when they start covering this and is complaining about how this is really lame and why do they even need to know any of this stuff just to serve drinks. Kind of sounds more and more like she couldn’t hack her English degree and latched on to the nearest man-shaped life boat and got mad at him when he wouldn’t carry her ass his whole life, isn’t it? Only when Simon calls her on this behaviour later in the book, asking her why she’s even still participating if she doesn’t care about this, it turns out she wasn’t sitting around gossiping and talking shit when they were covering Shakespearean history, she was intensely scheduling (?) to make sure she could fit in all her sister’s medical appointments! Oh yeah, bet you feel like an asshole now, Simon.
Simon goes on to say that if anyone is struggling with anything, he’s available to help. Emily is aghast. Help?! “If by help he means pointing out what people are doing wrong.” What the fuck is wrong with this person. What the hell does she think help is supposed to look like? I literally don’t even know where to start with this.
But of course, she totally falls for Simon. What happened? Does she realize that she’s being a huge asshole and tries to be better? That is seems, by all accounts, to be a studious, decent dude that maybe needs help coming out of his shell a little? Oh, we’re teased that she will learn, but even when she decides to actually commit, it’s to spite Simon. Why would this spite him? No idea. At this point in the story she’d interacted with him a grand total of like 3 times, where she was disruptive and rude and he was annoyed. Seems like he’d be relieved that she isn’t a fucking boat anchor around the event anymore but logic does not factor into Emily’s thinking.
So what changed her mind? His butt. She never stops resenting him for doing his job, but once she sees him in a tight pirate costume, suddenly he isn’t an asshole anymore, he’s just uptight and maybe she actually really likes him!
This is where the wheels on the train to Reality Town completely go off the rails. He’s literally acting, as he is supposed to, and she’s losing her goddamn mind getting “emotional whiplash” because one second he’s nice to her (in character) and the next he’s mean (i.e. irritated with her as the organizer). WHAT COULD THIS MEAN?
On day 1 of the fair they are low on people for the hand-fasting ceremony, so they bring in some of the cast to fill out the space. Emily is of course being hand-fasted to Simon. Swear to god, she goes from hating Simon to, through this 5 minute ceremony, to never having felt the sort of peace of having her hand in his and feeling like he would protect her. Even Emily is startled by this utter nonsense, thinking to herself what century she’s in. Probably the same one she was in with Jake. Her ambitions seem to really start and end with having someone else be the adult but let her think she’s actually doing everything and like, actually, HE’S the lucky one!
Even worse, the lore she’s invented in her mind about her and Simon during this hand-fasting thing sticks. She’s now distraught over What It All Means when the answer for any rational person is, of course, nothing. It means nothing. There were half a dozen other participants in this game of literal make believe. What is wrong with you.
Anyway this keeps going. Every interaction is like this. Reality and then Emily’s entirely contrary version of events. By the end of the book I am convinced that she murdered Jake for a perceived slight and had to go on the lam. Maybe the twist is that she was actually the driver who hit her sister so she could feel good about taking care of her in lieu of any other meaning in her life. Not like she had any “extra-curreculars.”
Oh, and she takes life advice from fortune cookies, because of course she does.
- The story bends over backwards to make the heroine’s insane inner world true.
Since this isn’t a horror story or a thriller, Emily can’t be an unreliable narrator and potential murderer. This means the whole world has to shift to accommodate her version of events. It turns out that Simon does like her, though literally every interaction they’ve had has been awful (well, she’s been awful). And the Simon that we’ve seen thus far, Emily doesn’t actually like him, so when they finally hook up, he magically, instantly transforms into a gentle, deferential lover who for some reason can’t believe she’d want to be with him. Indeed, it turns out that the reason he hasn’t pursued her sooner was because he thought she was dating Mitch for the reason of he saw them flirt once and Mitch invited her to a cast party. Mitch, who Simon has known for 20 years and an infamous flirt.
Let’s not even go down the route of her manipulating Simon when he’s super vulnerable and dealing with his brother’s death or we will be here all damn day (the scene is meant to seem sweet, but her internal dialogue is clear in telling us she wants him to talk to her about his brother’s traumatic death because it makes her feel special, not because she cares about his feelings).
It isn’t only Simon that suffers from this. The bookstore owner whose name I forget and can’t be bothered to look up is a pretty boilerplate super nice small town lady. She runs a bookstore and has been part of the fair since inception. But we need Emily to feel good about herself, so she butts her nose into her bookstore and starts telling her how to run it. As Emily is the heroine, the owner is dazzled with Emily’s generic ideas (a book club?! In a book shop?! Stop the fucking presses!) which the owner said she had already thought of and just didn’t have time to implement. They begin working on redoing the store. In Emily’s mind, this is her future now. Being a barista at a book store. No shade, but again, she describes herself as ambitious. She is demonstrably not.
At the fair, for Emily to feel useful, they have her be the only person who figures out that there are half as many people working the bar as last year, which means the people working have to work more. That’s some legendary deducting, Nancy Drew. There is no way the hyper organized Simon or bookstore owner who seem to run this show and have for a fucking decade and decide on the roster of volunteers could have possibly caught that themselves. Indeed, everyone at the fair is apparently a useless mouth-breather even though she’s the only new person on the cast (or at least that’s what she seems to think, and her thoughts are apparently gospel).
- The story doesn’t seem to actually care much about history or plays or renn faires.
Frankly, given the above, this is a minor quibble, but it still picks at me. I don’t pretend to be a history buff, but I am a fan of learning about the history of women’s clothing (where did pockets go?! How go we get them back??) so I’ve spent some time learning about corsets and how they worked. Shockingly, bar maids were not passing out left right and centre from having been laced up tightly into a corset. Because they weren’t laced up tightly. They were laced up tightly enough to provide support because corsets were literally bras. The shit that’s so tight you pass out was reserved for aristocratic ladies to wear to fancy events. Working women basically wore a vest to keep from having their boobs punch them in the face. And Emily, who is presented for one brief moment as a huge Shakespeare nerd (like, knowing exactly when each play was published, the historical context around the publication, etc) doesn’t even know what a bar wench would wear. As an aside, it’s not like there is a 100% accuracy. Even if wenches were laced up really tight, why would they make it so tight for volunteers at a renn fair? It literally doesn’t make any sense.
Honestly, I could keep going. There is so so much, but this is already way too long. So I’ll end with this:
If you want to read a good contemporary romance with a sweet hero that lifts up a heroine struggling with her sense of self, read any contemporary by Talia Hibbert. Read Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes. If you want to read a good contemporary romance that loves theatre and Shakespeare, read the London Celebrities series by Lucy Parker. If you want a decent emotional romance set around a theatre with a first person POV, there’s the Starcrossed series by Leisa Rayven. This is just off the top of my head.
I cannot fathom why people are reading this instead.