de Cadenet, Gia. Not the Plan. Dell, 2023. 320 pp. ISBN 978-0593356647. $17.00
I really wanted to love this novel. I thought it might be straight read-a-like for Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue–a romance about less than perfect people of color in a political setting. When Isadora, chief of staff to a state rep, accidentally spills coffee on a hot stranger at the airport, things escalate a bit to typical travel stress… but when they are seated next to one another, she decides to drop any instinctual snarkiness and be kind. Their meet cute doesn’t evolve to an exchange of contact information… and no one is more surprised than Isa when Karim turns out to be the new intern at the rival representative’s office. Although from the same party, the interoffice politics are likened to the drama of the Montagues and Capulets (another Shakespeare allusion, this publishing season is full of them) and she can’t be seen fraternizing with the enemy.
Trust is difficult for both Karim and Isadora; he’s struggling to extricate himself from a toxic marriage to a person with poorly managed bipolar disorder, and as he slowly lets down his guard and reveals his past abusive relationship, the symptoms and behaviors he describes very closely mirror those of Isadora’s manipulative, emotionally stunted and demanding mother. The portraits of and compassion for the mental health of others rings true, even as Karim and Isa struggle to set healthy and reasonable boundaries with difficult personalities. Adding to Isa’s stress are her career goals in a men’s world; her reputation is impeccable and political dealings on the level, but she knows just one perceived slip will lead to scandal and being accused of sleeping her way to the top. All she wants is to see her majority leader make it from the state to federal playing field.
The relationship progresses at a believable pace based on their mutual attraction, interests, and values. Supportive roles played by Karim’s brother and Isa’s (gay) best friend and co-worked provide space to vent and add to character development. The political setting gives a glimpse into how the sausage is made, and even the sordid scandal that comes at the denouement rings true. In an ugly scene, Karim and Isadora encounter and deal with sexualization (her) and racial slurs (him) and cope with it well.
As a reader who favors humor, a clever turn of phrase, painterly descriptions and sensory detail, I found the writing straight-forward but too monotonous and pedestrian for my taste–even through the multiple sex scenes, which were blow-by-blow detail and went on for 20+ ebook pages. The repetitive “blunt, honest?” before laying down a truth was overused, as were their pet names (the creative “beautiful” and “gorgeous”). While de Cadenet avoids the pitfalls of telling instead of showing and intersperses dialogue with action with success, there are long passages of exposition, and the vocabulary and actions were not varied like those of a seasoned storyteller. I plodded through, picked up Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun as a palate cleanser, and bingo: stellar writing, carefully chosen details, neuroses on full display, quirky characters. Better writing and better editing could have Not the Plan a four-star story.
I received a free advance reader’s review copy of #NotThePlan from #NetGalley.