Occasionally (admittedly very rarely) I’m in the mood for a romance novel. The last time the mood struck was June, so I suppose I was due for a relapse. I’m not entirely sure why I keep trying with romance novels because they’re never exactly what I want them to be in the way that other novels can be exactly what I’m looking for even before I know what I’m looking for. But there’s something very freeing about picking up a book I have absolutely no expectations for, so I keep coming back. This time, I tried my first ever Christina Lauren (an author duo) novel, an adult romance that was published in September: Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating.
About the book: Josh is in a relationship with a woman who makes no effort to be a part of his life, a woman his family and friends dislike; the relationship has no future, as Josh is discovering. Hazel is a lively elementary school teacher who tries with men, but mostly sees herself as undateable because she can’t stay with anyone who is embarrassed by her, but she can’t change her personality, either. Even Josh, who she met in college, laughs at the idea of a serious relationship with Hazel. But now that Hazel is working with Josh’s sister, a new bond is formed; Josh and Hazel try to help each other out by setting up blind double dates, but the more time they spend together the more they realize that their assumptions about each other may have been wrong, and that their burgeoning friendship matters more than either ever expected it would.
Unfortunately, Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating was the least impressive contemporary romance I’ve read all year. Granted, I’ve only read three. But before I get into the complaints…
This book does have several good points. It is considerate and inclusive of minorities, the central romance is healthy and non-problematic, and the characters stay true to themselves. Ideally, these are components for a perfect romance, right?
“A tiny voice reminds me that Josh didn’t bother to blow smoke up my butt and tell me what a lovely place I had. He never lies, or fakes enthusiasm. He just accepts me.”
But the plot is predictable (as often happens with romance novels), and worse, it’s rather uninteresting. The entire premise of the blind double-dates made me cringe– I missed that part of the synopsis and might not have picked this book up if I had caught it– and it only gets worse as every single contender turns out to be more awful than the last. I don’t have much faith in blind dating to begin with and have not bothered with it in real life, but are people really so horrible? Do real people behave this badly over a single meal with a stranger? There is no angst or spark in Josh and Hazel’s growing connection because there are literally no other people in their lives to stand in their way. Between their uncaring exes and their new rude acquaintances, Josh and Hazel are all but forced together. There is no resistance.
Let’s take a closer look at Hazel. It’s admirable of Christina Lauren to include a female character that is so entirely confident and herself that she would rather keep trying over and over and end up alone after every failure than consider changing who she is. But she feels more like a type than a character– Hazel is the epitome of the “quirky girl,” although most of her wildness comes out in the stories from her college days rather than her present behavior. Every time she takes a drink, she makes a show of telling someone they need to basically staple her shirt to her body so that she can’t drunkenly take it off, but nowhere in the book does she actually have to be stopped from undressing in public. Hazel is boisterous and unapologetic, but there’s a disconnect between how “crazy” everyone seems to think she is and the way she is actually presented in this novel.
“I’m Crazy Hazie and he’s Awesome Josh (hangover prevents me from finding something that rhymes with Josh) and nothing– I mean nothing— scares me more than the idea of us dating and him deciding that I’m too wild, too weird, too chaotic. Too much.”
And yet, in all of the time that they’re spending together, they’re dating each other in all but name and she has no reason to think that he could be scared away. This is just one example of how nonexistent the obstacles are between Josh and Hazel. Every now and then they think they have a reason to hold back, but the reader knows it’s bogus and not going to last. And that gets in the way of emotional investment in these characters.
Fortunately, the books speeds up toward the end as the drama passes from dating games to more serious life challenges, and it does end with a lot of positive commentary about kindness and acceptance in a variety of relationships– romantic, familial, and friendly.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. There’s nothing actually wrong with this book, it’s just… boring? Usually even if I don’t have a lasting appreciation for romance novels they do at least offer some instant amusement, but I was losing the will to finish this story as I read. There was nothing in the writing or plot to inspire actual hate for this book, it just seemed lackluster. I might try one more romance before the mood dies, but I’m feeling less interested after this one. I might even try one more Christina Lauren novel, as there was potential in the intent, even though this book didn’t impress me in the end.
- For a more engaging “dating” game, try Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, an adult romance about competitive co-workers who love to hate each other.
- For diverse romance, try Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient, an adult gender-bent Pretty Woman romance between a mixed-race man and an autistic woman. This book is a Goodreads Choice Awards winner!
The Literary Elephant