by Jason Feifer, Jennifer Miller
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Publication Date: October 16, 2018
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
“The Devil Wears Prada meets Sex and the City—a page-turner that's part sex diary, part coming-of-age story."—Carolyn Kylstra, editor in chief, SELF
Lucas Callahan gave up his law degree, fiancée and small-town future for a shot at making it in the Big Apple. He snags an entry-level job at Empire magazine, believing it’s only a matter of time before he becomes a famous writer. And then late one night in a downtown bar he meets a gorgeous brunette who takes him home...
Carmen Kelly wanted to be a hard-hitting journalist, only to find herself cast in the role of Empire's sex columnist thanks to the boys' club mentality of Manhattan magazines. Her latest piece is about an unfortunate—and unsatisfying—encounter with an awkward and nerdy guy, who was nice enough to look at but horribly inexperienced in bed.
Lucas only discovers that he’s slept with the infamous Carmen Kelly—that is, his own magazine’s sex columnist!—when he reads her printed take-down. Humiliated and furious, he pens a rebuttal and signs it, "Nice Guy." Empire publishes it, and the pair of columns go viral. Readers demand more. So the magazine makes an arrangement: Each week, Carmen and Lucas will sleep together... and write dueling accounts of their sexual exploits.
It’s the most provocative sexual relationship any couple has had, but the columnist-lovers are soon engaging in more than a war of words: They become seduced by the city’s rich and powerful, tempted by fame, and more attracted to each other than they’re willing to admit. In the end, they will have to choose between ambition, love, and the consequences of total honesty.
First off – this is not a romance. It’s lit fic about two characters who have sex with each other and then write articles about it, layered on top of a traditional “boy meets city” theme. It’s a bit of mash-mash of several themes, and while some of them work, some of them most definitely don’t. It, like Lucas, is a bit too naively ambitious, and they both fall short.
“Jesus! We’re not sexual altruists working for the greater good. This is about making people buy magazines. And do you know how?”
“We’re creating a titillating, tidy little circle of judgment. I’m going to judge you. You’re going to judge me. And the good people of New York are going to judge both of us.”
What starts out as a one-night-stand turns into a snarky popular sex column, when Lucas finds out that the woman he picked up at a bar is actually the sex columnist at the magazine he works for, and her latest viral article excoriates, well, him. Full of fury for himself and all the other “nice guys” she’s panning, he pens a scathing response, and before he knows it, they’re meeting weekly to have bad sex and then write mean articles about the other person’s performance. In the midst of this, Lucas is trying to manage his day job as a fact-checker, going to lavish and over the top PR parties, and trying to find a way to move himself up the career ladder. In that sense, at least, this reads as more of a “young man comes to the big city to make something of himself!!!” book, with the whole sex column thing plastered on top. The book itself references The Great Gatsby several times, and to be honest, it’s been a long time since I read that book, so I’m not sure how much of this can be read as an updated response to it.
My main issue with this book is that the characters are unlikeable. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with Lucas for his gullibility and honesty, but goodness, even in his vulnerability he’s a jerk. While he does live up to his “nice guy” status in the end, he spends most of the book stumbling from one stupidity to the next, and ignores advice from his friends that could’ve helped him. Reading the parts of the book from his POV – which is the majority of it – was eye-rollingly frustrating, because it was so obvious how each gullible action he took would backfire on him. My least favorite was when he realizes that Jays (his boss, the main editor of the magazine) had also slept with Carmen, and is elated because it “puts him in the same league.” Delightfully sexist, right? He makes his mom cry when he comes home for Christmas! Carmen’s not much better, though I appreciated that she was much more self-aware about her actions and how they appeared. I do have sympathy for women trying to fight the glass ceiling. Carmen’s searching for a way out of the sex columnist box she’s found herself in, and trapped in the persona she’s had to craft to survive in the cutthroat world of journalism.
The romance is nonexistent. I was expecting a “hate-to-love” but instead we get something more like “hate-to-friends-with-benefits.” They’re forced into this relationship, and Carmen’s determined to handle it in a business-like manner while Lucas is constantly pushing for “vulnerability” and “meaning.” From the beginning, there’s a level of disdain and judgement on both sides that wreck any chances of an actual relationship forming. Lucas’s insistence on an emotional response to what was honestly a business transaction was annoying, rather than endearing. While they have some chemistry, I don’t feel like it was communicated to the reader very well, and frankly I found most of the sex scenes (and the erotic retellings of them in their columns) to be decidedly unsexy. We’re halfway through the book before the two even start actually talking to each other, and that’s when they finally became interesting. Unfortunately, it’s not too long after that the big misunderstanding occurs, and they basically cut contact with each other.
“She felt tall and powerful, towering above Jays in her Louboutins. And, yet, the rush of total victory eluded her. Negotiating the terms of a contractually bound fuck buddy was not what Sheryl Sandberg had in mind when she instructed women to Lean In.
Still, Carmen felt competent. She hadn’t been totally steamrolled—a small and perhaps pathetic kind of success, but also the only one available to her. Working with what she had, she’d harnessed that same resourcefulness from her childhood bedroom. She wasn’t much different from Jays, in this way. She was taking care of herself, first and foremost, as always.”
Despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy the majority of the book, I think there are some interesting points to take away from it. Many of the main characters are well-off white men who came to NYC to “make something of themselves.” Lucas, while living the life on a “poor” fact-checker in NYC, comes from an upper middle-class Southern family that’s constantly trying to appear richer. Spragg, the eccentric and obscenely wealthy heir to a hotel empire, is constantly trying on new origin stories that play better than his midwest roots. Even Jays fits the mold of the guy who came from nowhere and hit it big, with his magazine, restaurant, and other ventures. The differences – and similarities – between the men’s approaches to success, and the degree to which they get it, was thought-provoking. Carmen, in contrast, is a native New Yorker, who, along with her grandma, is struggling to maintain her place in a city that doesn’t seem to return her loyalty, and seems to want nothing to do with her now that she’s no longer in her twenties. Of course there’s also the obvious media ethics angles – should a magazine be paying people to have sex, and what does it say about us that we want to read about it?
Overall, I think you can guess that this isn’t my kind of book. I went in expecting a romance, and was disappointed by the lit fic angle instead. If you’re looking for something Gatsby-ish, love stories that idolize NYC as the “greatest city in the world,” and looking for stories about ambitious – but gullible – people, I think you’d have a better time of it.
One extra note, about the content warning: View Spoiler »There’s a scene where Lucas, while investigating someone for an article, finds an allegation of attempted rape and he confronts the victim.
“Why’d you let some rich kid get away with it?” he asked. “Why not press charges?”
I know this was written well before the Kavanaugh allegations came out, but this struck me as really tone-deaf. I understand where the authors were going with this, but I feel like it was addressed in a way that could be harmful for survivors. « Hide Spoiler