Just My Type, by Synithia Williams

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!

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10 Responses to Just My Type, by Synithia Williams

  1. Laura Vivanco says:

    “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”

    For me, that’s the case with most/all US romances. I’m kind of used to most of the conventions and cultural attitudes now, but they still feel foreign and every so often something will show up that surprises me. And, of course, for me it literally is work.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, that’s occasionally true for me when reading British-set contemporary fiction (romance or not), too. It’s less true for historicals, both because I have read so much 19th c. fiction, and probably because a lot of British-set historical romance is written by Americans.

      I remind myself that it’s mostly a question of familiarity and to keep reading. After all, when I first read Austen and Heyer as a teen I found their worlds and language pretty bewildering. Now I feel right at home.

  2. Sunita says:

    I’m not a huge fan of the brother-as-protector trope, but I know a lot of readers enjoy it. I think Emily has recommended this one on Twitter to me too, and it sounds like a lot of fun.

    Laura’s experience is true for a lot of non-US readers, especially if they don’t spend much time watching US television shows or movies. Even for me, when I first came to the US, reading US-set fiction was as much to learn about the culture as anything. When I wanted an escapist, familiar read, I read UK-set books because I knew that culture better.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I actually think, thanks to what I read and watch, that the UK can feel more familiar to me than the Southern US. Which is its own problem!

      Having spent much of my adult life living “next door” to my native country, where you can watch US TV and shop in US based stores and a lot of the time barely notice you’re in a different country (sorry, Canadian friends, but it’s true) I know how even after 20 years, little differences can surprise and trip you up.

  3. Janine Ballard says:

    That’s an interesting topic — reading about another culture or a new culture. When I moved to the US, I missed reading in my native language so much (It was long before the internet, and even the library of the university where my dad worked had a limited supply of age-appropriate books in Hebrew). Part of that was the language itself, but part of it was the culture. The two sometimes combined in interesting ways, for example, I remember that all the references to crosses struck me as peculiarly Christian, even “cross the street” or “He was cross with me.”

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think what is interesting for me is when, as an American, I read American fiction that catches me on small cultural differences. I mean, it’s obvious and a cliche, but it’s also easy to forget that “American” culture isn’t really a monolith but is made up of many, many regional, ethnic, etc. variants. And it’s a good reminder not to mistake the version familiar to me as the whole.

  4. lawless says:

    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, so much, except for me it’s not so much diversity as which kind of diversity. Unlike some, I had no problem adjusting to Jeannie Lin’s world or voice. At first it struck me odd that this would be the case. After all, what have I read? James Clavell (Shogun and the like) and Amy Tan? But then I remembered that I’ve read Tao te ching and The Art of War and manga based on Buddhist and Asian concepts as well as absorbed without thinking the Confucian concepts about order (though not authority) that permeate Korean society even though I’m 100% American. Her books are close to comfort reads for me; I know the reading experience will be smooth.

    With other writers, black and white, especially of contemporary romance, that’s not necessarily the case. I’m not a whole lot more excited about reading about well-off black couples and entrepreneurs than I am white couples. I understand the aspirational nature of the genre, but the kind of aspiration I want out of it has more to do with progressive gender dynamics. That’s held me back when it comes to the African-American aspect of diverse romance. That doesn’t mean I haven’t read any — I really enjoyed the last book in Rebekah Weatherspoon’s FIT trilogy and bought the second one (I’m avoiding the first for plot reasons), though the series is multicultural/interracial, not AA, as well as Alyssa Cole’s historical novella Agnes Moor and the Black Knight. I have a few others in my TBR.

    Another thing I’ve realized as I’ve struggled over the past few weeks with a post on diverse romance is that there’s even less talk about Latino/Latina characters and authors. I guess they get subsumed in multicultural. I know they exist, but where? There don’t seem to be books with Latino couples, or if there are, I haven’t heard about them. What about Latino authors? Other than possibly Jordan Castillo Price, I can’t think of any. Nina Perez of Sharing Spaces, which is in my TBR pile, is Black. So other than Black authors, we have East Asian authors like Lin, hapa authors like Milan and Thomas who are beginning to write about their Asian heritage, and South Asian/Indian authors like Suleikha Snyder, Sonali Dev, and Alisha Rai. ,

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      We all have to adjust to some things we read, if we read anything not reflective of our own exact cultural context. So I agree, it depends on the reader and what else they’re familiar with.

      I think *online* discoverability is shaped by who you follow/interact with and what they like, and that can be a fairly closed ciricle. I am sure there are romances by Latina authors/with Latina characters, but with few exceptions I don’t see people talking about them. Do I need to find new people to follow? I mostly find author-run blogs when I go looking, and frankly I’ve learned to mistrust authors promoting each other/their genre. Sure, I could try wading through Amazon or Harlequin’s Kimani page, but that kind of guesswork browsing is not an easy way to find stories I’ll like. I’m not saying it’s impossible and that I won’t try, but I wish it were easier to find recommendations I can trust to guide me. I have limited reading time and I’m not into random sampling.

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