Indie publishing favorite Olivia Dade’s Avon debut, Spoiler Alert, is a funny and poignant triumph that defies expectation.
On the surface, April Whittier and Marcus Caster-Rupp are opposites. Industry insiders and fans alike appreciate the good looks of Marcus, an actor on hit TV series “Gods of the Gates” (think “Game of Thrones” meets the Aeneid), but deride his talent, intellect and exuberant, puppylike demeanor. But Marcus is no himbo (a slang term for a lovable and gorgeous but not very bright man) or “well-groomed golden retriever,” even if he effectively plays one in public appearances—for personal reasons and publicity’s sake.
April’s image, in contrast, is that of a consummate professional, an accomplished scientist whose figure defies narrow beauty conventions. She’s confident and comfortable in her skin but finds it harder to claim her playful and sexual side in public, let alone acknowledge her online identity, which is separate enough from her real life to have its own vocabulary. Her IRL friends, she fears, wouldn’t understand the hours she spends crafting cosplay outfits, shipping and writing fan fiction about her OTP, and obsessing over alternate narratives for her favorite show. Like Marcus, April worries about being taken seriously, but unlike Marcus, she’s reached her limit with hiding parts of herself.
That’s what ultimately leads to their meeting in real life. Fueled by her impatience with the status quo, April posts a photo of herself on Twitter in full “Gods of the Gates” cosplay. After the tweet goes viral, Marcus gallantly rises to her defense when fat-shaming trolls start attacking her size. Marcus’s swift response:
“I know beauty when I see it, probably because I see it in the mirror every day. @Lavineas5Ever is gorgeous, and Lavinia couldn’t ask for a better tribute.”
To Dade’s credit, this scenario plays out with originality and minimizes harm to sensitive readers. Marcus’ save is superfluous because April is no wilting flower. She knows how to block and tackle and “wrestle her mentions into submission,” then move on with her day. Plus, the text doesn’t get bogged down in listing out the insults on the page.
Marcus asks April out on a date and though they don’t know it at the time, the introduction is redundant. On the internet, where identity and appearances can be cloaked and Marcus and April feel more fully themselves, they’ve actually been friends for two years.
Within the confines of the “Lavineas” server (a portmanteau of Lavinia, April’s favorite “Gods of the Gate” character, and Aeneas, the role Marcus plays), they met on an even playing field. April (username: Unapologetic Lavinia Stan) and Marcus (aka BAWN/Book!AeneasWouldNever) both love the foundations of the show but hate a lot of what the producers have done with it (again, much like “Game of Thrones”). So they write terrific fan fiction and give each other support and feedback. Their fan fiction, direct messages and server posts add depth to their relationship and a new dimension to the celebrity/normal person trope.
That Spoiler Alert so effectively forces the reader to see the significance of the common ground between the scientist and the star is a testament to Dade’s skill as a storyteller. This romance also masterfully conveys both the fun and misery of fandom and social media, as only a text authored by someone who knows these worlds intimately can. It’s clear that Dade isn’t faking those geeky credentials.
On top of all that, Dade also gives weight to the challenges that many people must deal with closer to home. Marcus and April have weathered childhoods spent with parents who didn’t approve of important aspects of who they are. The book is smart enough to show that this gives them something in common, but can also pull them apart as they struggle with trust and conflict. By depicting these characters with their parents and then with each other in the wake of those parental interactions, Spoiler Alert illustrates the damage that families can inflict on children they judge to be flawed. The family scenes are powerful and unflinching; they might even make some readers cry, but they never overwhelm Marcus and April’s love story.
Despite the high level of difficulty involved in taking on these topics in combination, Spoiler Alert surpasses every mark. Even when the waters April and Marcus are navigating become choppy, it never feels like you’re drowning. So it’s fitting when, towards the novel’s end, the fictive author of the Gods of the Gates book series sends Marcus an email with the following message: “life isn’t all misery, and finding a path through hard, hard lives to joy is tough, clever, meaningful work.” This could well be a vision statement for this novel and, if so, mission accomplished. Dade has gifted readers with a thoughtful, swoonworthy and emotionally satisfying contemporary romance that has the added benefit of a realistic, multilayered and relatable portrayal of the digital world. If you’re into fan culture and practices, it will be an even greater pleasure. Loyal Olivia Dade fans and new readers alike will love it.