Elena Armas’ debut romance The Spanish Love Deception, has been getting a lot of attention. I’ve seen the cover on social media a lot and it recently won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Debut. I hate not liking a book, but I did not like it and now I have to write a bad review.
Before I requested it on NetGalley, I had seen a few reviews calling it a Hating Game knock off. I read a lot of genre books. I don’t have a problem with derivative, or “knock off”. Some of my favorite books are variations on a theme, or derivative, or knock offs, depending on your perspective. That’s what genre does. So, I don’t have a problem with The Spanish Love Deception being a knock off of The Hating Game. The combination of workplace romance, enemies to lovers, and fake dating is not uncommon and can be quite fun. I have a problem with the way it’s a knock off of The Hating Game.
What Armas misses in her variation on The Hating Game theme, is that Lucy and Josh are equals in all things. They are equally invested in the games they play, they are equally competent at their jobs, and they are equally dorky. They rescue each other.
Lina and Aaron are not both willing participants in their rivalry. Aramas tells us that Lina and Aaron are equals, but that isn’t what we see on page. Worse, she tells us Lina is bright and competent, but shows her as a mess:
- Aaron offended Lina during his first days at the company where they both work and got on her blacklist. Fine, except when she gives other examples of people on her blacklist, she uses celebrities. I like a good celebrity grudge, but the hate we have for celebrities just isn’t on the same level as someone who harmed us personally. As soon as Lina started talking about Zayne Malik, I stopped taking her grudge seriously. She’s just being a jerk to Aaron. Other than one mild dig, we only ever see Aaron try to be helpful, making Lina’s behavior look petty and small.
- We hear about Lina being competent, but on page she endlessly embarrasses her self. Aaron is constantly coming to her rescue. I won’t innumerate all the ways, but the first third of the book was one cringe after another. I don’t love cringe, and I really don’t love a character who is supposed to be a competent professional woman be shown as a series of missteps, pratfalls and bad decisions. Not only does Aaron appear to be more generous and gracious, in comparison, he is a more competent human being.
There was one plot line that made it hard for me to appreciate the perfection of Aaron. Spoilers: During a meeting of department heads, Lina is assigned to do a task outside of her expertise and it’s heavily implied that she’s given the task because she is the only woman in the group. When she pushes back on the assignment, none of her colleagues, including Aaron, support her. One colleague, Gerald, is clearly rude and condescending to Lina, doubling down on the implied sexism. (Gerald is the also the only character in the book consistently described as fat. Make of that what you will.) Aaron leaves without challenging Gerald’s behavior which Gerald, unsurprisingly, takes as approval. Later, Aaron shows up to help Lina do the work but first, he tells her that he didn’t think she was the kind of person who wanted other to people to fight her battles for her and that he didn’t think she was a whiner. What? WHAT? I don’t know what Armas is doing here, but there is a lot of space between silence and threatening to fire someone where Aaron could have supported his colleague. Instead, it becomes another instance of Lina being incompetent and Aaron riding to the rescue. There is a later incident where Aaron does attempt to fight Lina’s battles for her and his anger that she won’t join him falls rather flat when just a few weeks earlier he had accepted Gerald’s misogyny in silence. End spoilers.
What Armas does well is the emotions and the romantic words. If you want the emotional sugar high, The Spanish Love Deception delivers. But it left me with a headache and a queasy feeling in my stomach.
Content Warnings: crash dieting, the only character consistently described as fat is also the worst antagonist, workplace misogyny, off page parental death, on page parent with terminal cancer.
Thank you to NetGalley and Atria books for the advance reader copy. My opinions are my own.