The Hating Game, by Sally Thorne

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.


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13 Responses to The Hating Game, by Sally Thorne

  1. There was so much more I wanted to write in my review of the Hating Game and you have said it all here. I too found the placelessness disconcerting and it annoyed me immensely (made up places in Harlequins are an instant turn off for me). I had to suspend disbelief with the HR complaints and the workplace bullying too.

    As for the fat-shaming not being only Lucy but her boss too – I thought this was in line with Lucy’s adoration of her boss. The two co-CEOs hated each other and, in my opinion, Lucy and her boss just parroted each other’s mean comments. Once again, Lucy was reflecting a person who wasn’t a particularly nice person. I also agree that this is a problem with Thorne’s writing and one that I didn’t feel I articulated well. I didn’t accept it as not being a problem but I accepted it as the way that this character behaved (and to be honest as many people in real life actually behave). I don’t think that Thorne was deliberate in writing Lucy this way but it did feel true to a body obsessed character. I also had a real issue with the way she kept touching Josh’s abs and phwoared at him mid-sentence. If this had been reversed and it had been Josh touching her breasts and groaning, this book would have been a zero. Yet somehow, I was still charmed by the book.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I loved your review and it made me think about a lot of aspects of the book I hadn’t really noticed or thought about. I agree about Lucy’s obsession with Josh’s body. That ended up working OK for me because he complained and she thought about what she was doing and changed. It seemed like in part a response to/representation of how she assumed that this was only ever going to be one-night hate sex (though WHY she thought that when Josh was sending totally different signals like NOT immediately having sex with her, I don’t know; there were some plot and characterization holes, in retrospect).

      And I agree with you that Thorne managed to charm me into not caring about a lot of this stuff as I was reading. I had the good book feeling almost the whole time and most of these things only came to the fore when I put it down. That’s a sign of all her strengths and I hope she only gets better from here.

  2. Sunita says:

    I gutted my way through the first 75 or 100 pages and then it got better, but I am definitely in the minority on this one. Responding to your points:

    1. I thought the writing was OK but nothing special. The emphasis on colors was a nice touch, but as you say, there were repeated words and the book was at least 50 pages too long. It is an often-told category story padded to single-title length.

    2. The lack of place was so strange. Everyone is white and they live in a major city with a decent bus system and relatively affordable rents. I don’t mind UK/Oz-isms in my US-set books, but this felt like an uneasy mishmash of not-quite-US and not-supposed-to-be-UK-or-Oz.

    3. The workplace setup was unbelievable and deeply unappealing. These two weren’t just bantering, they were making each others’ lives miserable as well as the lives of those who had to work with them. Even as a fantasy it was way past adorable and well into horrible-workplace territory. And even assuming they were both qualified for the position they were competing for, who would want to work for them? I sympathized most with the HR person. Maybe it was supposed to make us think of The office (either version), but it didn’t work at all for me. I would have fired both their asses and replaced them with people who could behave like adults.

    4. The stereotypes are about everyone who doesn’t meet Lucy’s (conscious and subconscious) approval. Her character clearly has body issues, but I agree that it seemed to go beyond that. The insults toward the not-thin, not-tall, and not-young were matched by the obsession with huge, muscular men. That line about Lucy’s ex that you quoted had my jaw dropping. Lucy is 5 feet tall and built like Betty Boop. Most men could pick her up!

    Honestly, you could teach this book in a course that deals with gender, age, and body image. All the older people were described as dumpy, fat, gross, unfashionable, etc. Except Helene, presumably because Lucy wanted to be Helene. I was grateful when we got out of the workplace and there were fewer opportunities to judge.

    The romantic storyline had some really sweet moments, and I can see why, if you’re reading primarily for the romance and can overlook the other stuff, this book can really work for you. It wasn’t enough for me, and there are a ton of category authors who do this much, much better. In addition to Hart and Kelly, I’ve read versions of this story by Liz Fielding, Marion Lennox, Fiona Harper, and Sarah Morgan. All of them manage the enemies-to-lovers trope without making anyone quite so unpleasant.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This is definitely one of those books where afterwards, I ask myself why I enjoyed it so much, because I have so many criticisms. I guess it should give me an understanding of id reading, huh? It certainly pushed some kind of button that kept me happily reading despite qualms.

      In retrospect, I think a lot of the stuff I disliked was over-reaching to make a point, including a lot of the body stuff. I disliked the whole subplot with Danny and Josh’s jealousy–for one thing, it should have made obvious to Lucy how Josh felt about her, and for another, that kind of jealous behavior is just a no go in reality, and I have less and less tolerance for it as a fantasy in romance. The core point I liked–that Lucy needed someone who was not nice, who would stand up to her, because she was less nice and gentle than she liked to think of herself. But you could show that through a date with Danny where there was no spark without all the body-shaming and the caveman behavior from Josh. This could have been a much more subtle book, and had it been, it would have been a better one, I think, though it would have been less “funny” in the specific way that it was.

      And I agree completely with your list of Harlequin authors who can pull it off better. They should be more widely read.

      • Sunita says:

        Yeah, the Danny storyline barely stayed on the right side of exploiting the Nice Guy to get the hero. I was glad that at the end of their date, they both seemed to realize there wasn’t enough of a spark. And the later collaboration between them would have paid off for him, not just Lucy. But I agree that the way it made Josh jealous should have told Lucy more than it did in the story.

        The other thing I think hurt the depictions of the MCs was that they had no friends at all. We never saw them interacting pleasantly apart from work and family. Even in the short wordcount of category romances you frequently have the MCs talking to friends, who humanize them and show that their battles with the enemy are only one part of their personalities. Here the battle was all-consuming, especially in the first quarter of the book.

        I remember that back when category authors more regularly made the career move from short form to single titles, one of the questions readers and reviewers considered was how well they could open their stories up and fill the longer formats. What’s interesting here is that the story would have worked better, I think, in a shorter wordcount. We could have still had the romance without being hit over the head with the details of the Lucy-Josh competition, and maybe there would have been less space for coworker shaming. Because there really wasn’t any major storyline than the romance; everything else was in service to that.

  3. Janine Ballard says:

    I got this from the library two weeks ago and haven’t made it past page ten. Your review makes me feel better about returning it without finishing it. The beginning feels sluggish to me, in the first ten pages we’ve got these two people who hate each other but except for the description of the hero being better looking than he ought to be, in Lucy’s opinion, there’s very little positive there — no reluctant admiration, no spark of attraction, no repartee.

    Given how much these two hate each other and how they’ve reported each other to HR, something like that would help me want to keep reading about them. Right now, I don’t. Maybe my expectation is unfair, since it’s only ten pages in. But in most books, at ten pages in, there’s at least something to make me want to turn the pages, and here, there really isn’t much. If I didn’t know this was a romance (not so much from the book itself as from the marketing and buzz around it), I would expect more of a War of the Roses (movie) kind of story, a black comedy or biting satire about nasty workplace politics.

    Although… it is not that funny to me. Is the humor going over my head? Is this, for the rest of you, a laugh-out-loud funny kind of book, or at best just mildly amusing? So far my response to it falls into the second category.

    Did anyone else trip over the early descriptions of the Bexleys and Gamins and the culture shock when the two companies merged? I don’t buy that at one publishing company, everyone would be a bean counter and the other, everyone would be artsy.

    Unless I’m presented with evidence to the contrary, I’ll continue to assume that every publishing house has its own marketing and accounting departments as well as its own editorial department, so the idea of so much uniformity in attitude within each house just didn’t compute for me. Different companies within the same industry have different cultures, yes, but the differences aren’t as simple and as glaring as this book makes it sound, I don’t think.

    Regarding the writing: I too noticed the repeated words in the same sentence. Yes, this book needs editing. I like some of the metaphors, though. For example: “He did not smile back, and somehow I feel like he’s been carrying my smile around in his breast pocket ever since.” And some of the wordplay: “We’re evenly matched, but we’re completely at odds.”

    And there’s pretty good sensory detail: “At work, all I can hear are his machine-gun keystrokes and the faint whistle of air conditioning. He occasionally picks up the calculator and taps on it.” I don’t love “machine gun” as a description of keystrokes but I do like that the keystrokes are mentioned, and I like “the faint whistle of air conditioning.” It is not brilliant writing but I’ve read worse.

    I hadn’t gotten far enough to pick up on the body shaming and fat shaming but I appreciate the mention of it, since it can be a hot button for me.

    • Sunita says:

      Janine, I liked it less than Liz and Vassiliki did, but even so I thought the romance sections were good, and if you appreciate the writing (or parts of it) then that’s another plus. It definitely gets easier and more enjoyable to read after the initial workplace section. But of course no one has to read any book. I was curious to see where it went, so I read the whole thing, but I wouldn’t have felt at all guilty DNFing.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        How long is the initial workplace section?.

        • Sunita says:

          Between 25 and 30 percent, I think? The romance part begins at the end of the team-building exercise, more or less.

          Oh, I was going to respond to your point about the diametrically opposed publishing cultures. That’s one of the things that made it feel like a throwback to me; it reminded me of when Crown Books was established and it was all about the bottom line. The regular lit publishing community was horrified. Of course today so many of the old independent publishers are incorporated into the Big 5, it’s hard to remember those days. Maybe there are more recent examples of money v. art in other countries. Anyway, I agree it’s unlikely but since it triggered a memory I just went with it.

        • Janine Ballard says:

          Thanks, Sunita. I’ll have to think about whether I want to power through that much. I have a lot of review commitments right now and I have to prioritize those first. While I like parts of the writing, it’s not calling to me.

          I appreciate what you said before about not feeling guilty for setting it aside. With a book as buzzed about as this one, I sometimes feel bad about not finishing or not “getting it.”

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          I came very close to ditching it before I got to the point where I wanted to finish. And then I had to rush through the end because I was up against the library deadline, wanted to see how it worked out (as predicted) but didn’t want to pay $12 for my own copy.

  4. Hahaha, I think the HR reports would have killed it for me! If you’ve reported someone to HR once, they most likely are not a good romantic match. And that’s a real shame about the way the author uses physicality to describe character, especially along with the other shitty stereotypes and the use of “retarded,” which I thought we as a culture were pretty much done with. :/

    I also really like it when romance authors play with your expectations about what romance protagonists are supposed to look like. So smaller heroes, or fat heroines, I’m always super down for. I don’t specifically expect it (that would really set me up for disappointment :p), but it’s nice when an author does do it.

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