Needing a break from my struggles with the Man Booker longlist–profitable and sometimes pleasurable struggles, yes, but struggles nonetheless–I picked up the much buzzed about romance début by Sally Thorne, The Hating Game. (The publisher labels it a “workplace comedy” but it’s 100% trope-tastic enemies-to-lovers workplace romance, as the blurbers on their site confirm).
The plot is really simple: Lucy and Josh are the assistants for the duelling co-CEOs of Bexley and Gamin, a publisher that resulted from the merger of two very different firms. Lucy and Josh hate each other, until they don’t. But they’re up for the same promotion, so how can they fall in love? It’s all quite predictable, but who cares, because the familiar story is told with verve and great charm.
I enjoyed Lucy’s chick-lit inflected first-person narration and though the humor stayed on the right side of the line of heroine (or hero) humiliation, something that’s often a problem for me with this kind of book. Lucy gives Josh as good as she gets, and that equality is part of why they fall for each other. There’s great sexual tension (and eventually some pretty hot sex). Aside from that last bit, The Hating Game reminded me, in tone and sensibility, or some of my favorite Harlequin authors like Jessica Hart and Mira Lyn Kelly. I think part of the reason books like this get so much buzz is that people want more humor and charm; there’s not a lot like this in single-title, in my experience, but there are plenty of category romances along these lines.
But (it’s me, you knew there was a but, didn’t you?). I did have some quibbles. And since the book has gotten so much love, that’s what I’m going to focus on. Keep in mind, though, that I mostly found this delightful and if this sounds like the kind of thing you like, I recommend it. With reservations:1. I wish that this had had more editing. Vassiliki has a great review discussing the strengths of the writing, and I mostly agree with her. I didn’t even think about the mirror imagery she points out, all the shiny reflective surfaces in the office and the way Lucy and Josh mirror each other (and spy on each other through those reflections). At the same time, I noticed repeated words in many sentences. And the book felt overlong, or at least the pacing was off. The early parts were repetitive and the last couple of chapters were rushed.
Perhaps it felt long to me because I was comparing it to much shorter Harlequin romances, and was racing to finish my library e-book before it expired. It also felt over-long to me in the rather nice way that the later Harry Potter books do–that is, I enjoyed every scene, but the cumulative effect was of a dragging plot. I wouldn’t trim 200 pages to get it down to Harlequin Romance size, but I would trim some. These problems with editing showed up in some more important ways, though.
2. I think the author is Australian but the book was placeless in both setting and language. I’ve lived in Canada for 20 years so I get the desire to strip a book of local color and hope it will sell in the US. But I so wish authors and publishers would stop doing this. Give readers more credit. The effect of this placelessness was to make the book feel set in a vaguely fantasy world a la Harlequin Presents, which maybe is a good thing because…
3. It only worked for me as a fantasy. This is a personal reaction more than a literary criticism. Lucy and Josh have made complaints about each other to HR. They have both received reprimands. That . . . that is not the kind of workplace sparring partner you fall in love with. That’s a bullying nightmare who makes you miserable. I don’t know if it’s age or personal experience but I find enemies-to-lovers a harder and harder trope to love, particularly in a workplace setting. So it’s to Thorne’s credit that she made me fall for her characters and story anyway, and enjoy the ride so much. But maybe the HR jokes were overkill; part of me couldn’t help thinking “fire these toxic jerks.” Is “(s)he’s only mean because (s)he has a crush on you” really a trope we want to stick with?
4. Most significantly, Kelly is absolutely right that the humor includes stereotypes that strike a sour note. A character calls himself “socially retarded,” a hurtful and totally unnecessary word. And Josh’s nasty boss’s nastiness is emphasized by making him fat, greedy and lazy. Someone jokes about trying to give him diabetes. This didn’t ruin the book for me as it did for Kelly (which probably says nothing good about me) because it was a very small part. But it certainly diminished my pleasure, and again I thought a stronger edit could have gotten rid of these elements–and should have.
The fat-shaming was part of a bigger body-shaming problem in the book. Again, Vassiliki’s comments are really thoughtful on this point; she notes that as Lucy is the narrator, most of this comes from her point of view and shows her to be a flawed character, more interested in pleasing people than being a truly nice person. That last is a good point, but I can’t read the body-shaming as only Lucy’s; her boss, for instance, is the one who makes the diabetes joke. And the narrative never undercuts Lucy’s views of male bodies. I think the problem is Thorne’s, and genre romance’s more generally.
Much is made of Josh’s height and muscles, and of Lucy’s tininess. Some of this description worked well in establishing character. Josh resents being wanted only for his body and Lucy’s “niceness” is a protective defense developed in childhood. She’s often underestimated because she’s cute and little (she’s five feet tall). But the physical differences are also emphasized so much that the book often felt very Old Skool. Oh, he’s so huge and powerful, she’s so tiny and delicate. Hot!
I know romance heroes are almost all tall, big of bicep (and other places) and firm of ab. I get that their size is symbolic of their heroism, their rightness for the heroine. I don’t love this shortcut, but I’ve come to accept it. What I hated here were the comparisons Lucy made to shorter, slimmer men who could never measure up to Josh’s manliness. He can pick her up (and constantly does, swoon [not])! Her previous boyfriend–half a foot taller than she is–she thinks, would have snapped his “frail, childlike spine” in the attempt. WHAT THE FUCK? Short men are not weak or unmanly. Or childlike.
Shortcuts in romance like the giant hero have their uses–they establish character archetypes quickly, they push emotional preset buttons in a reader, as Jayne Ann Krentz explains. But they can also veer quickly into hurtful stereotypes. Fat villains (male or female). Over-made-up blonde villains with fake boobs (female). Brown villains (romantic suspense). Romance loves its physical descriptions. But it needs to stop using this kind. A very sweet book left a sour taste behind because of them. And there was no need for any of it. All the character points were made without these descriptions of little men and fat men. Just stop.