Writing up my February TBR Challenge review, I lamented that my romance TBR, mostly acquired a few years ago, is so white. Recently I’ve been trying a few recent, more diverse choices from the library to see if that might reignite my enjoyment romance reading.
It’s been a mixed bag, and that’s mostly about me and where I am personally rather than about the books. When I think about it, I struggle to be fully immersed or emotionally engaged in any book I read these days. And for romance, that might matter more to me than with other genres. When I first started romance reading, it felt transgressive (yes, I saw it as a guilty pleasure) and so much fun. I was hooked on the feelings. (Sorry). I don’t mean to suggest that genre romance offers no intellectual pleasures, but when I can’t get swept away by the story, I don’t find the reading very rewarding. All this is by way of context for my thoughts about Mia Sosa’s The Worst Best Man. I did enjoy it. But maybe I tend to nit-pick more, or just have more questions that aren’t fair to load onto a single book, if I’m not in the right place to just say “Book, take me away!” These are thoughts I dashed off while my students were writing an in-class essay, so they aren’t fully formed.
Worst Best Man made me think about how reading a romance generally requires readers to extend some generosity to the book right at the start. The meet-cute and set-up are often exaggerated or implausible scenarios. There is something larger than life about these books, even when the setting is realistic and contemporary. Are you, the reader, willing to go with it to get the emotional payoff later? As I write this, I’m wondering about how much of our willingness to buy in comes from the writer’s skill, and how much from the reader’s mindset? I think it’s some of both. There needs to be reader-book chemistry—in a sense, every time we read we’re having a blind date with a book. Will we click? Why is it that some romances have me rolling my eyes, and others have me eagerly strapping in for the ride? I’m not sure I can say.
In the prologue to Sosa’s novel, wedding-planner Lina Santos is left at the altar of her own wedding. Erstwhile groom Andrew doesn’t even have the guts to make the announcement himself, sending his brother/best man Max to break the news. Three years later, Lina is invited to pitch her wedding planning services to a family-run boutique hotel, just as she’s about to lose her office space and feels her business is at risk. The catch? She’ll be competing with another applicant, and working with someone from the hotel’s marketing firm. Those marketers? Andrew and Max, of course.
I was mostly willing to go with this—plenty of it is plausible—but I did wonder about the five-week-long reality-TV-style job “interview.” Was Rebecca, the hotel’s manager, paying her marketing firm for these services? They weren’t pitching her for business. If not, why did they go along? And would you want to work for a woman who dreamed up a scheme like this—and told you she got the idea from reality TV—even if you were worried about finding affordable office space in DC? These niggles did not occupy too much of my time when I was reading, because the set-up is mostly an excuse for Max and Lina to spend time together (and get stranded at an inn with only one bed…). I love romances where the couple has to work together, so I would have enjoyed seeing more of the nitty-gritty of how they develop the pitch, especially from Max’s side, but I think more of that would have strained my credulity about this set-up, so keeping things vague was probably the right approach.
As in the focus on their work, in general I thought that Lina’s side of the story is better developed than Max’s. The story is told through alternating first-person-present narration, so we see plenty of his thoughts, but we get more of Lina’s backstory and see more of her with her family. Andrew and Max have, apparently, always been in competition with each other (their parents think sibling rivalry is good?) but there’s not much detail about what that meant or how it affected them. Andrew’s characterization didn’t entirely make sense, and I was never sure why he had either dated or dumped Lina. But again, probably keeping this vague was for the best: dating the woman your brother left at the altar is awkward in so many ways. I don’t think I would have wanted to know more about Andrew and Lina’s relationship.
Max is a nice guy, but this is definitely Lina’s book. Lina is Black, the daughter of Brazilian immigrants. She was raised in a family of single women (her mother and aunts) who banded together after their husbands left them. So many romance protagonists seem almost context-free, and I enjoyed Lina’s family relationships. Her bond with her cousin Natalia is especially good: like siblings, they both bicker and support each other; they’ve developed a secret language of hand signals so they can communicate behind their mothers’ backs.
I think Sosa’s choice to write a rom com about a heroine like this was somewhat risky. I don’t mean that Black women shouldn’t get to be in fun stories. But the romantic comedy is a genre of over the topness, and that can make it easy for genre tropes to veer into cultural stereotypes: for instance, where is the line between a comic aunt who is probably getting it on with a family friend and needs to be talked out of an overly flashy wedding outfit and a stereotypical loud, tacky, sexualized Latina?
Obviously Sosa is aware of this risk—unlike me, she’s lived it. It’s built into the romantic conflict and Lina’s backstory. Lina masks her emotions because in the past, expressing them has gotten her into trouble. She recognizes that as a woman of color, she can easily be dismissed:
We must never let our emotions get the better of us; doing so is either a sign of weakness, one that diminishes our well-earned respect, or a mark of combativeness, which will cause people to say we’re irrational. And as women—women of color, more specifically—we simply can’t afford to be perceived in those terms.
Lina wanted to marry Andrew because he was safe: she didn’t love him and wasn’t vulnerable to him. She has to learn that with Max, it’s safe to show her feelings and be her real self, even if she needs to present the controlled “persona” she’s created to much of the world. For me, Sosa’s decision to explore stereotypes about women of color and their emotions within a genre that risks reinforcing those stereotypes was especially interesting. For the most part, I think she was on the right side of the line between interrogating stereotypes and falling into them, though there were times when the more broad-strokes characters like Aunt Viviane read to me like stereotypes and the humour around them was a little cringey.
I wonder if I would have felt less this way if the representation of Lina’s Brazilian cultural heritage had been explored in some different ways. I don’t mean it was inaccurate—it’s the author’s own heritage—but that it was mostly shown through food, music and dance. These things matter to culture, of course, but they are also markers of “exotic” culture that readers are comfortable with; they pop up in loads of books and movies. I wondered about things like the place of religion in the family’s life—there’s a reference to missing church at Easter, but it’s brief—or how the divorced women were viewed and treated by their immigrant community. This is another place where I think Sosa’s genre made it a challenge to incorporate a sense of culture that went beyond what’s easily visible to outsiders. Yes, a rom com can be about the child of immigrants, but it’s hard to foreground that aspect of a person’s story and still hit the genre beats. I think. I found that here, in any case.
There were also just moments of rather awkward info-dumping, like when the capoeira instructor gives a two-paragraph lecture on the martial art’s origins. It’s an introductory class, but the detail didn’t seem integral to the narrative.
This is an example of a place where I kind of felt like the author didn’t trust her readers enough. Another is when Max recognizes his White male privilege, more or less in those words:
Shit. I’m a White man, and I’m embarrassed to realize that none of this would have occurred to me if Lina hadn’t forced me to see it. It’s a privilege I take for granted—the ability to be who I want and say what I want no matter the space I’m in.
If Max is going to be in a relationship with Lina, he should learn to understand his privilege. But I think he, and I, could have learned this lesson in a more subtle way. It’s the kind of place where I feel the intrusion of social media conversations into fiction, and regret that romance authors and readers are so very online. It’s not the recognition I minded, but the wording, which seems too abstract (and “woke” for lack of a better word) for the personal context.
But maybe it’s not fair to blame Twitter for moments like this. My experience as a romance reader is that often authors don’t trust me to draw inferences about what characters are thinking or feeling, that they spell too much out. I hope this isn’t about me decrying the Social Justice Warrior takeover of romance, but a broader issue that is part of why I sometimes struggle to read in the genre.