I’m a sucker for a well told fake relationship trope. It is one of these story format that is incredibly hard to get right because of how ludicrous the very idea is, at least if you’re past the age of making decisions with a mind addled with teenage hormones. The set up is key to the believability, and McFarlane nails it.
Plot: sort of boring woman works for regressive, sexist company. She has been immune to a lot of the really nasty stuff that goes on, like the office gigolo, because she has been in a long term relationship for a decade with a very popular other worker. And then he dumps her. And because she’s boring, and because her now ex was instantly in another relationship and after being told that she was suffocating him with domesticity dude knocked up his new girlfriend instantly, and because everyone is treating her like a victim because what are the odds she will ever recover from losing literally the best thing she could get and her bosses are suddenly acting weird around her, she’s feeling all kinds of out of sorts. Conveniently, the gigolo is very ambitious and being stifled by management because he’s not a family man. This sounds like a perfect opportunity for a mutually beneficial fake relationship to get people off her back and help him rise through the ranks, no?
The set up is an extremely well crafted version of a by-the-numbers fake relationship, enemies to lovers sort of thing. Only we see pretty quickly that the set up is challenging us to question what we really know about people and what we know about them third and fourth hand. Because our gigolo isn’t really the heartless womanizing alphahole people in the office are convinced he is, and she isn’t the dimentionless little mouse those same people tell us she is.
The book’s purpose, as far as I can tell, is one giant fuck you to the idea of #fakenews, and a challenge for readers to realize that we have been buying into corrosive lies in ways well outside of the news cycle for pretty much ever. Our characters learn to look past the rumours and malicious gossip because they actively work at getting underneath it, to get to know the real person. Once they’ve set up this fake relationship thing, they commit to trying for a real friendship to underpin it and in that friendship they not only learn how actually spectacular the other person is, but rediscover their own worth, the things they value, and the courage to demand better of themselves and those around them.
This book isn’t free of free standing cliches, but I’m not mad at it. There is a reason things become so well used they become a cliche. You have sudden, unexpected family visits, and conveniently timed illnesses, and exes that come out of the woodwork to throw a wrench into things. They add spice, but they aren’t the substance of the narrative for me.
I read this book a couple of months ago, and I’ll be honest, it was a little much at the time (not the book’s fault of course), but now that things are looking a tiny bit smoother (Australia is even investigating Rupert Murdock’s influence on news media!), I think this would read as more of an inspired fictional take on how we might approach things moving forward, rather than a damning critique of how we got where we are.
One note on content: there are a couple of instances in the story where our main character is basically forced into a room with two aggressive men. It doesn’t get dangerous, this is a rom com after all, but just that could be upsetting to some readers.