Guillory, Jasmine. While We Were Dating. Berkley, 2021. 352 pp. ISBN 9780593100851 $16.00
Ad-man Ben Stephens gets to lead on a pitch to a technology company because of a travel snafu–he’s aware that he did most of the work on the presentation: and knows he will get the least amount of credit from his firm, being not only young but a person of color. He rises to the occasion in spite of being flustered when the talent–beautiful and bodacious Ocsar-nominee Anna Gardiner–shows up; she and her smart manager wrote veto power into her contract. Ben gets the gig contingent on Anna’s request that he be the lead producer on the phone commercial they’re going to make.
To Anna’s delight, Ben is a safe, respectful person for the cast and crew and sensitive to institutionalized misogyny in many small moments, in part from his brief stint as a back-up dancer. Ben and Anna share similar interests and sense of humor, and they hit it off. When Anna’s father has a health scare and she can’t get a flight home, Ben offers to drive her. Bonding happens during the road trip, filled with requisite tunes and snacks. They get to the hospital just as her dad is checking out, and Ben has to pretend to be her driver. Crisis averted, there is #JustOne!Bed at the hotel and she sleeps with him, NOT because she feels she owes him anything, but because they genuinely like and respect one another. Her manager thinks Ben might be the perfect foil to pose as her boyfriend until her most recent film premieres, Ben good naturedly agrees (he’s not looking for anything long term and only his therapist seems to see a problem with his reluctance to commit), but then …. falls in love.
Subplots include Anna’s management of her anxiety and how fame and celebrate strain mental health; Ben’s discovery that his absentee father had a third child, a sister who found him through a DNA matching service–should he tell his older brother Theo? He wants Theo all to himself, and there might not be enough love to go around!) and the power struggles in the superficial film industry over race, color, size, gender and popularity. Each protagonist has a wonderful support network: a best friend to confide in, and family is really important: Ben is close to brother Theo, and his girlfriend Maddie, a stylist, saves the day. Anna, too, has a loving brother and parents who might not always understand her, but support her completely.
I didn’t find this as compelling as Guillory’s first novel, and am trying to pinpoint why. I struggled to get through this, didn’t write a review right away, wanted to provide one to boost my NetGalley completion rate, couldn’t remember a thing and had to re-read it… and slogged through it again. While We Were Dating has a lot going on, and the writing and characters felt simplistic. The author absolutely elevates important issues to the forefront for the romance readership without being didactic, using humor and empathy. The red carpet details were fun–and the publicist realities and paparazzi behaviors are abhorrent and terrifying. I like celebrity/regular person pairing but do find them very … fanfiction-y.
I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #WhileWeWereDating from #NetGalley.