The celebrity or public figure love interest has long been a popular staple of the romance genre. What’s nice about this particular trope is that it evolves with the times, and with new social contexts comes renewed relevance. That’s definitely the case as these two romantic comedies by bestselling authors shine a spotlight on the agony and the ecstasy of love in the 21st century public eye. The results are entertaining and enlightening. Both books weave solid doses of social observation and critique in with the love story, and both center characters dealing with the complications of being in the public eye while belonging to a marginalized group.
Jasmine Guillory’s Party of Two is a sweet and gently funny interracial romance about Olivia, an African American lawyer who dearly prizes her privacy and yet can’t helping falling for a wealthy, high profile white United States Senator. Max is simply delicious—handsome, smart and smitten, with a penchant for courting with baked goods—but getting entangled with him threatens to upturn Olivia’s carefully guarded life. The book follows their efforts to get to know each other and have a normal romantic relationship outside of the spotlight.
Though Max and Olivia navigate rarefied social worlds, this might be the most relatable of Guillory’s novels so far. It’s definitely the one most grounded in social reality. It is easy to connect with Olivia’s conundrum: She meets the man of her dreams, but finds that he comes with a lot of baggage and constraints that make a relationship with him far from ideal. That could be a relationship killer no matter how dreamy the guy may seem.
Guillory also ably addresses how race influences Olivia’s response to Max and how it exacerbates the difficulty of being in the public spotlight. Olivia researches Max’s social media and his political positions before agreeing to go out with him. His stance on Black Lives Matter, for example, was a potential deal breaker (turns out, they are both strong supporters). Now more than ever, that totally tracks.
Olivia and Max actually have a lot in common. They’re both accomplished in their own right. He’s a socially conscious, liberal senator and Olivia is an idealistic, Harvard-educated lawyer starting her own practice after making partner in a large, frustrating firm. But as a Black woman, Olivia is subject to more scrutiny from the public and the press than Max, or than she would be if she were white. Guillory skillfully portrays the nuances of Olivia’s social position and the precariousness of her privilege. Though the book takes place in the United States and not the U.K., Olivia and Max’s relationship contains definite parallels to the relationship between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Having watched one of the world’s most beautiful and accomplished women get virtually maimed by the tabloids, it’s not hard to imagine that a woman who has worked hard to overcome obstacles wouldn’t want to subject herself to similarly intense public scrutiny.
That said, despite its adept handling of its subject matter, a few elements didn’t entirely gel. The novel is strangely cagey about Max’s political party. It’s obvious that he’s a Democrat, but only through allusion. In a politically themed novel, the party names never appear, which is distracting and seems overly cautious in the current political moment. The characters’ internal monologues can also be a bit awkward at times. Those issues aside, I was happy to spend time in this world, and the issues and conflicts the couple navigate resonated. Party of Two is easily Guillory’s best book to date, and fans of the series will be thrilled with this entry and the growth Guillory displays as a writer.
While Party of Two looks at life in the eye of the political storm, Alexis Hall’s Boyfriend Material offers an entree into the treacherous world of celebrities and dating as reputation management. Luc, the lead character, is the child of a notoriously dissolute and neglectful rock star. His relationship with his lout of a father is nonexistent and has been nearly all his life. As a result of their estrangement, Luc has experienced almost none of the privileges of fame, but must manage all of the public scrutiny that comes with being the child of a famous person. His every move is hounded, his every breakup and alcohol-infused misstep fodder for the tabloids.
Herein lies the beauty of Hall’s novel. The fake-dating trope can be challenging to do well; it comes with a high bar for believability. There has to be a good reason why, in the year 2020, anyone would feel such social pressure that they would put the effort into constructing a fake relationship for public consumption. Boyfriend Material doesn’t merely meet that bar; it leaps over it with room to spare. Hall gives us a hero with a PR problem that actually matters.
The crux of the issue is that Luc has a tabloid life, but his career demands he live up to a fairy-tale ideal. As the lead campaigner for an obscure but important environmental charity, Luc’s job relies on the public’s goodwill for its success. Being the living embodiment of scandal is not just inconvenient or embarrassing. It’s a career killer. Big donors don’t like their money being associated with impropriety; their contributions are meant to burnish images, not tarnish them.
As a result, Luc’s presence in the tabloids is taking a real toll on the charity’s bottom line. The fact that Luc is a gay man further complicates his celebrity and notoriety. In theory, his sexuality should be irrelevant. His employer’s donors are proudly and loudly liberal. But in practice, Luc finds that attaining respectability is harder as a gay man. Because of society’s problematic double standards, Luc needs to show that he is the “right kind” of gay person, meaning that he’s neither promiscuous nor dissolute. Boyfriend Material deftly names and shames the hypocrisy in which being gay is great, as long as you strictly hew to traditionally heteronormative and conservative standards of behavior, lest you become a “bad gay.” Enter the fake boyfriend Oliver, a highly respected barrister who is as buttoned up as Luc is messy. Luc rightly bristles at the idea that he needs someone like Oliver at his side to do his job:
“Okay so”—Priya seemed a tad frustrated with me—“when you said a man, any man, you actually meant any man who fits into a very narrow, middle-class, and slightly heteronormative definition of acceptability.”
All of this could get terribly heavy, but in Hall’s expert hands, it doesn’t. The critique of respectability politics as applied to the queer community runs throughout the book, but it never derails or detracts from Luc and Oliver’s story; it deepens it.
Another factor in the book’s success is the fact that these opposites have excellent chemistry, and their banter is first class. Hall positively insists that readers laugh and think at the same time. Every other sentence elicits a chuckle, but the laughs are continually tied to insight. The result is both laugh-out-loud funny and authentic.
Perhaps the best way to capture the magic of Boyfriend Material is to think of it as a literary, millennial version of a 1930s screwball comedy. The writing is vivid and visual like a movie, and the requisite elements—absurd situations, a seemingly mismatched couple, disguise and secrecy—are all there, though the true pandemonium is mostly confined to Luc’s hyper-aware and anxious brain. The tight-knit, hilarious ensemble of coworkers, friends and family surrounding Luc and Oliver are reminiscent of Richard Curtis’ brilliant romantic comedies Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill.
Both Party of Two and Boyfriend Material are romances worth reading and thinking about. They tell sweet, funny and deeply romantic stories while exploring the challenges and contradictions of public and private life in the 21st century.