I was simply delighted by this one. His Grumpy Childhood Friend hit a couple different trope happy places for me – second chance romance, friends to lovers – but it also did something I love more and more as I consume a good amount of Romance books: it released its third act tension without a break-up or fight. The tension point of the story isn’t a misunderstanding or one of the pair freaking out and walking away, instead we get characters dealing with traumatic experiences and figuring out how to continue in hope, not fear. Maybe its just where I am in my own life, but this sort of character development is what I’m here for, more and more.
But I should backtrack a bit. Mike and Charlotte were each other’s closest friends in their childhoods, living next door to one another. But twenty years ago, Mike moved away without any warning and never contacting Charlotte again. When she runs into him at her favorite cider bar the first thing out of her mouth is to ask what happened. He tells her a piece of the truth, that his parents hadn’t told he or his sister that they were moving until that day and that they hadn’t allowed him to reach out to his old life in their shared hometown. Charlotte and the reader learn more about those details as the story progresses.
Lau spends a lot of this book on expectations and emotional abuse. Mike’s parents were abusive, and he and his sister have both gone no contact, and while Mike has been to therapy to process his trauma he is still fighting the voice programmed in his subconscious by his parents telling him that he is not enough and will always fail. For her part, five years ago Charlotte had a traumatic break up and swore off dating. But she would like to get married and have children, so decides its time at 33 to re-enter the dating world. But she’s convinced that her cranky, introverted, isolated nature makes finding the right person for her highly difficult. Her hope (inspired by her friend Rose) is that some “practice” dates will help her start back down this road in a positive way. And what better person than Mike?
But as is the way of Romance, they both catch feelings. And as much as I enjoyed the time spent with the “practice” dating and making out, I loved the part of the book focused on Mike declaring he had real feelings for Charlotte, and her reciprocating, and the way these two people who feel dramatically unprepared for dating learn that they are just what the other needs and the future they each want is possible with the other. I appreciated Lau placing the reality that Mike is likely going to need to go back to therapy to help him cope with the ways in which being in a long term committed relationship with someone so closely linked to his past is going to trigger his trauma responses and how Charlotte worked to navigate what she knew versus what she could see in his responses and calibrating ways to better facilitate their relationship without taking the onus onto herself.
The epilogue pivots over to Charlotte’s sister and that gave me a hankering to revisit Her Pretend Christmas Date which was when I first came across a paired-up Charlotte and Mike. I was quickly reminded how much this opposites attract story worked for me. The story begins with Julie Tam and Tom Yeung set up on a blind date in November which is a disaster of misplaced expectations, they are opposites in all the ways they initially care about. Fast forward a month and Julie has been telling her parents about the new guy she’s dating, a fictionalized version of Tom since he is exactly the kind of person they’d want her to end up with. When her mother requests she bring Tom home for Christmas Julie makes a call and asks if he’d be willing to pretend to be her boyfriend for three days at her parents’, he surprises her and agrees.
Once these characters (and Charlotte and Mike) get to the Tam family home these two opposites begin to see what they had initially written off to be things that make them quite fond of each other. The Christmas traditions, plus the Tam parents added gingerbread competition provide plenty of opportunities for Julie and Tom to develop real feelings, even though neither thinks the other is. (Lau also sneaks in a “there’s only one bed” and brings the return of the noisy twin bed.) Lau excels at novella length, and I loved how she paced out these characters, plus the bonus time with Charlotte and Mike and the Tam parents.
Bingo Square: Snake (as snakes represent healing, and Mike’s entire arc in His Grumpy Childhood Friend surrounds that idea.)