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are reality dating shows romantic?

Review: One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London

One to Watch

In this novel, Bea is a popular plus-size fashion blogger who goes viral for a posted complaint about all of the female stars on reality dating show Main Squeeze being model-thin; for a show whose purpose is to uphold the prospect of fairytale love for the ‘average’ American, shouldn’t the cast be more… representative of actual Americans? Bea would like to know.

She’s been unlucky in love herself, but when the season of Main Squeeze that she criticized flatlines and the producers decide to try a new tactic by hiring Bea as the next star, it’s not exactly love she signs on for. So much of reality dating tv is staged, she knows, and the engagements from each season’s final episode tend to last the contractual six weeks before the couple cuts ties. But going on the show would boost Bea’s fashion business and help show women who look like Bea that they can have fairytale love, too. With twenty-five eligible men vying for her hand though, will Bea be able to keep love out of the arrangement?

“…a lot of people find the existence of a fat woman something to get worked up about.”

CWs: body shaming, fatphobia, sexism, infidelity

I’m afraid this review is going to come off as a rant by the end, but I did appreciate a lot of things about this book and enjoyed the read, so I want to start off with some positives.

The body positivity and critiques of fatphobia first and foremost are incredible here, as one might expect from the premise. Bea is the main narrator throughout the book and is presented as a full, complex human being who calls out those who wrong her and deals with trolls on the internet and occasionally makes a bad call, as do we all. She’s humanized through and through, and while her experience as a plus-size woman colors every part of her life, Stayman-London avoids the mistake of letting Bea’s fatness make up her entire characterization.

“If the other kids just didn’t pay her any mind, that meant they weren’t being cruel, either. But being ignored is its own kind of hurtful.”

There’s some great diversity among the rest of the cast, as well. Main Squeeze has just changed hands from a lazy old white guy producer to a young woman on the rise and eager to move the show in a more inclusive direction. Bea’s bachelors include a Black man, a Frenchman, a single dad with a gender-nonconforming child, an asexual and aromantic man, a fat man, and more. Bea’s best friend is a lesbian. The best part is that all of these characters are given great scenes in which they get to just be a person- they’re not stereotyped, but their actions and advancement on the show make some great statements as well. I don’t want to say more and spoil any of the twists of Bea’s Main Squeeze episodes, but let me assure you that there are so many positive messages in One to Watch, both directly in the prose and also in the structure of the plot. (Watch out for those internet trolls though, they do spew some absolute venom along Stayman-London’s road to incredible commentary.)

And it’s not only the inclusivity. One to Watch is FUN. Woven in with the narration are bits of multimedia related to Bea and Main Squeeze– texts, group chats, think pieces, blog posts, tabloid articles, contracts, emails, tweets, interviews, and more. Though the book did get off to a bit of a slow start for me, once Bea is on Main Squeeze even the chapters are laid out as episodes of the show, complete with bits of script and film direction. All of this formatting keeps the story feeling fresh , fast-paced, and realistic, and most of all, it brings the Main Squeeze fandom to life.

I actually do not watch The Bachelor or any of its spinoffs- I am not a part of that fandom, which One to Watch is clearly mirroring. But it is so easy to get sucked in right along with the fans in the book: hashing over who’s been cut from the show, guessing who’ll stick around for the next episode, wanting to comment over every shocking comment and gesture. The drama is all there, and allows for a high level of reader engagement. It had all the appeal for me that murder mystery whodunnits usually do, only without bringing death into the equation. This would be a fantastic book to read along with a group or buddy, to weigh in every chapter or two and talk over what’s happened and predict what will happen next. It’s juicy in a way that’s exciting to share.

But it didn’t sell me on reality dating TV. And here is where I run out of praise, even though I did know going in to expect a Bachelorette-type story- One to Watch is upfront and correct about the sort of book it is, so my complaints do not lie with the novel, exactly. I saw a few reviews from readers who aren’t Bachelor franchise fans but loved this book, and I decided to take a chance and hope Bea would be doing some dismantling. Bea does dismantle stereotypes, but aside from wanting to make Main Squeeze more inclusive she accepts the show as is, questionable ethics and all, and that’s essentially where my issues lie. I do understand that the people on these shows sign contracts and know what they’re agreeing to and do actively agree to participate, and that in this case those characters are also entirely fictional, all of which is good. But humiliating someone on live TV as a “plot twist” to boost ratings? Keeping “villain” suitors around for intrigue? Filming personal conversations for public consumption. Having to take all these random suitors you hardly know into your family’s home for someone else’s entertainment. Broadcasting genuine heartbreak for the sake of the fans. It just feels gross to me, so the TV part of this book was never going to be the right fit.

“This is reality television, not a symposium on ethics and moral philosophy.”

Not only do I dislike the general premise and practice, but a story using this format is also necessarily going to rely on some of my least favorite tropes- there’s the instalove factor (the show takes place over several weeks, but there are so many people involved that a lot of decisions are made based on first impressions), the fake dating (these people have signed contracts and are getting paid to act as love interests; even if they are actually looking for love there are mixed motivations here, especially in Bea’s case, as she goes through several episodes and dates without her heart in it at all), and dating as a competition (Bea has to judge these men against each other and they are competing- the drive to “win” perhaps does not always coincide perfectly with the goal of finding real love). If these tropes are more your jam than mine, that’s totally fine, of course! Personally I’m into romance novels more for the angst, for relationships (of any sort: friends, enemies, coworkers, etc) that slow-burn develop into something more, and for characters pretending they’re not in love when they secretly are. I like my love stories a bit more on the emotionally torturous side, apparently. The fairytale/fantasy/money-is-no-object stuff just isn’t what I’m generally looking for, and again, I did read the synopsis of this book and decide to chance it, so any disappointment over finding what I expected not to like in these pages is on me.

But weighing my likes and dislikes here, I’m realizing that I did enjoy One to Watch, I just didn’t find it romantic. I wanted to know who Bea would choose in the end because I wanted to be right about my guess, not because I felt chemistry between any of these characters. A comment from one of the fans in the book about one contestant potentially winning an engagement “by default” when love gets messy toward the end of Bea’s season left me wondering whether fans of reality dating shows (and/or this book) are in it for the romance, or the game? What makes a romance a romance- are dates enough to put a book in the romance genre, even if they’re paid, even if they’re fake? I don’t mean to push anyone’s trope-loving buttons here, I’m genuinely curious to hear about what draws you (or doesn’t) to reality dating, whether you find reality dating truly romantic, and what you look for in romance media.

Because with this book, even though a few of the guys are very decent, I was surprised to find that the only one warming my heart was Bea.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’d definitely recommend this book if the premise appeals; it delivers exactly what it says it will, and does it well. I found it inspiring and encouraging even if not exactly romantic, and I’ve already loaned out my copy to someone who barely reads because I think this is an easy book to love and a fun one to talk about. The only downsides for me were ones I foresaw from the start, so I’ll absolutely be keeping an eye out for any further work from Stayman-London, especially if it steers away from reality dating!

The Literary Elephant