Vacation reading is fast receding in my memory as I get caught up in regular life and have less time to blog. So please excuse any weirdness while I try posting from my WordPress app for convenience sake (convenience’s sake? Damn, already in trouble!).
I am not sure how Synithia Williams’ romance Just My Type got into my TBR, but I suspect it was a recommendation from my Twitter friend Emily Jane Hubbard. In my Tiny Twitter Review I described it as an opposites attract, big brother’s best friend book, and it uses those popular tropes effectively. Janiyah Henderson is the baby of her family and the only girl; in her early 20s, she’s a self-employed virtual assistant, and while she’s doing okay, her family doesn’t see her as grown up or serious (and even she feels she hasn’t found her real career). She has a crush on her brother’s friend Freddy but he rejected her when she was a teen so she’s moved on to dating other men–many of whom see her as fun but not for a serious relationship. And “she’d never considered that her unstable dating life might be the reason [Freddy] insisted on treating her like a sister.” It is, though–he assumes she’ll quickly tire of him and move on.
Fredrick Jenkins is an ambitious, successful accountant. He’s attracted to Janiyah, but there’s the “best friend’s little sister is forbidden” problem (more on this later). And all his life, he’s watched his father give his impulsive, irresponsible mother whatever she wants, whether they can afford it or not. Freddy fears that Janiyah is like his mother, and that if he lets himself fall for her, he’ll adore her to such an extent that he’ll lose sight of his own goals and repeat his parents’ mistakes. But when Janiyah applies for a job as his assistant to prove she’s responsible enough for an office, he just can’t stop himself anymore (so that makes it office romance, too!).
I found Janiyah’s struggles to find, prove, and believe in herself especially appealing, and true to a character who is just a few years out of college. She does grow up some, but mostly she learns that there’s more than one way to be a grownup, and that she can be herself and be a responsible adult–and that Freddy can love her just the way she is. Her relationships with her parents and brothers felt real, too. There was conflict there, but no over the top meddling or villainy.
These two have been friends forever, and I thought Williams did a great job of capturing the intimacy and banter of their friendship even before it becomes something more or other. Janiyah felt a bit overdrawn sometimes (for instance, she never has food in the house so is always barging into Freddy’s apartment across the hall in her sexy PJs to steal his cereal). But as is often true in romance, real emotions and experience are captured by those heightened portrayals.
I have mixed feelings about the big brother’s friend trope. I like the attraction has to be resisted/kept secret, but I prefer that to be because it’s risky and awkward if things don’t work out, not because “her brother will kill me if we do it.” You don’t own your sibling’s sexuality. There was a bit of the latter here: “He could only imgine how the Henderson men would crucify him if they knew he dreamed of Janiyah.” And there was some “you boys will have to take care of your mother and Janiyah when I’m gone,” but not too much Men as Protectors of Women and Their Virtue to put me off. In fact, since the Hendersons know and like Freddy, they’re happy when he and Janiyah finally start dating.
I had some issues with Just My Type; the middle dragged for me and the conflicts/inner thoughts of the characters started to seem repetitive. I also wasn’t thrilled that Freddy (oh, excuse, me Fredrick in this context) turned into a typcially bossy Alpha during sex. I get that he wanted Janiyah to see him as something more than a brother/boring accountant, but I’m tired of “real man” being equated with muscles/big penis/sex god. This is pretty standard fare, of course, but given that Janiyah always feels “not good enough” I wished for a more equal dynamic.
While I was reading this I was discussing with a friend how some books written for a niche market cross over more easily than others. This is tricky to talk about, because I don’t think African American romance is “just” for African Americans. However, it is marketed to and largely read by that audience (for good and certainly for ill too). And I think some books require a reader outside that culture to do a lot of adjusting of expectations/snap judgements and learning to understand some of their conventions. That’s fine, and it’s work I’m willing to do, but it is work, and it may mean that when I want to pick up a romance for easy escape/fun, I’m less likely to choose a diverse one. This one was a good crossover book; I never felt I might just as well have been reading white characters, but it used tropes and conflicts familiar to me and fit them to its Southern African American context. In that sense it reminded me of Sonali Dev’s Bollywood Affair, which also effectively adapts familiar tropes, and thus easily appealed to a wide audience.
Reading Just My Type, I thought how most African American romances I’ve tried are set in the South, which can make them doubly culturally different for me. I noticed on Williams’ website that she has a book coming out from Kimani in January which seems to be set in New York. I think I’ll check it out. And then there are Janiyah’s brothers’ books. I’m curious about how the Hendersons will deal with their father’s plan to sell his car dealership; he thinks it will free them, but his son David, who’s running it, feels betrayed. . . . Juicy!