“Monday night. Wednesday morning. Friday lunchtime. Holland Bakker plans her journeys to work around the times the handsome Irish musician, Calvin McLoughlin, plays his guitar in the 50th Street subway station. Lacking the nerve to actually talk to the gorgeous stranger, Holland is destined to admire him from a distance. Then a near-tragedy causes her busker to come to her rescue, only to disappear when the police start asking questions. Keen to repay Calvin, Holland gets him an audition with her uncle, Broadway’s hottest musical director. When he aces the tryout, Calvin’s luck seems to have turned – until his reason for disappearing earlier becomes clear: he doesn’t have a visa. Impulsively, Holland offers to wed the Irishman to keep him in New York, still keeping her infatuation secret. Calvin becomes the darling of Broadway, while their relationship evolves from awkward roommates to besotted lovers. Yet surrounded by theatre and actors, what will it take for Holland and Calvin to realise that they both stopped pretending a long time ago?” (Synopsis from the publisher)
From the outset, I suspected this book might very well be ‘my jam’. It’s set in the New York Broadway business and has major The Proposal vibes, because the two main characters, Holland and Calvin, have to get faked married so Calvin can stay in the country and take a job as a musician on (you guessed it) Broadway. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the story-line, having never grappled with US immigration laws or been involved in the Broadway biz, but what I do know is that Christina Lauren capture well the behind-the-scenes aspect of what goes into making a successful show, showing all the people from the director to the cellist to the front-of-house staff. It was clear that It Possessed Him was riffing on the success of the likes of Hamilton, but I didn’t mind that, in fact it only endeared me to it even more.
“There is a high that comes from live shows, a collective energy in a large group of people all gathered for one reason. The beat slices through the melodies and then drops; the crowd bounces and undulates like ripples of water.”
And now to the trope that I do know about, at least on a fictional level: fake dating. I am a sucker for this trope – The Proposal is genuinely one of my favourite films of all-time because it does the trope so well – and I thought it was handled brilliantly in Roomies too. Our two fake spouses, Holland and Calvin, bounce off each other in an extremely believable way. They don’t have picture perfect love-at-first-sight perfection in their interactions; there’s awkwardness and arguments and many a conversation about boundaries and important things that must be discussed between alleged lovers. As this is my first Christina Lauren book I can’t say this definitively but I’ve been well assured that this appears in other books of theirs – I love the frank and honest communication that occurred in Roomies, particularly regarding female pleasure. In a scene which had me cackling, Calvin innocently discovers Holland’s vibrator and questions why it’s so bright pink and obviously “wrong” coloured and Holland’s response is to ask why he’d expect it to be flesh coloured because then it would look like a dismembered dick and wouldn’t that seem “wrong”. At least for a large portion of this book (the second half less so, but I suppose that’s necessary for the sake of plot development), Holland and Calvin actually communicated and honestly? That’s kind of refreshing.
“Ugh. Crushes are the worst, but in hindsight a crush from afar seems so much easier than this. I should stick to making up stories in my head and watching from a distance like a reasonable creeper. Now I’ve broken the fourth wall and if he’s as friendly as his eyes tell me he is, he may notice me when I drop money in his case the next time, and I will be forced to interact smoothly or run in the opposite direction.”
This book isn’t all tropes and hilarity, however, there are some very real social issues discussed which I didn’t expect. Calvin, in particular, is given a lot of emotional and personal baggage in the form of his family. His family back in Ireland doesn’t have the easiest life and they’re strapped for cash, meaning Calvin doesn’t want them to feel like they need to come to the US to visit him and waste all that money only to see him busking in the subway for enough cash to sublet a friend’s apartment. He doesn’t want them to see him like that – a plot point which I didn’t anticipate, nor was I prepared for the emotions I felt when it was revealed. (On a more frivolous note, to lighten a bit of the sincerity of this last comment, listening to the audiobook was a treat because the narrator did a serviceable “Irish accent” but struggled on completely slipping out of it once she’d been voicing Calvin, resulting in some of the narratorial voice having a slight Irish twang to it too.)
“For not the first time, it occurs to me to ask him how he makes ends meet, but I can’t—not here, and maybe not when we’re alone, either.”
Aside from Calvin and Holland, the small cast of side characters were decently drawn, especially in a book of this sort, where they can very easily be neglected in favour of the main character and the love interest. Whilst I feel nothing but annoyance for Holland’s “friend” Lulu (seriously why was she even friends with her, she was horrid!), Holland’s uncles Jeff and Robert were my particular favourites, especially Robert, the famous Drama Desk Award winning Broadway producer. However, Jeff came through in the end in a surprisingly pertinent way as, when his niece has a career/life/identity crisis and he tells her that sometimes a job can just be a job, it doesn’t have to be your passion, and that it’s downright impossible to ask yourself or anyone else to try to imagine where they’ll be in five or ten years because all you can do is go down your own path and try not to get distracted by the periphery. As Jeff is the serious “man behind the man”, the emotional and moral support to his husband Robert’s effusive, shining brilliance, it would have been all too easy for Christina Lauren to neglect him in favour of other side characters in Roomies, so I was all the more pleased when, at various points in the story, he came through in quiet but significant ways.
“This is what I have to keep reminding myself. Sometimes a job can just be a job. We aren’t all going to win the rat race.”
In conclusion, I have never worked in the theatre biz and I have never had a fake anything (let alone marriage) but I found Roomies surprisingly relatable and that’s its true strength. Sure enough, the tropey fake marriage plot line is done very well, and Calvin is a very appealing prospect, but what I enjoyed most was how real Holland felt to me. Working in the theatre industry, being surrounded by people who are so super talented at playing instruments and writing music, Holland feels ordinary by comparison – it won’t be a surprise to learn that this feeling is one which is incredibly relatable to me, regardless of how different our situations in life are. The personal growth in this book may be aided by her relationship with Calvin, but it isn’t dependent on it for its conclusion; Holland realises that she needs to take control of her own life and live because the reason she is constantly distrustful of Calvin’s feelings is because she doesn’t believe anyone could feel anything about her. It’s a surprisingly philosophical point to discover in a book which, on the surface, is cute and fluffy but it’s one that was the final straw in making me fall for this book and very much look forward to reading Christina Lauren’s other books in the future.
“I need to fill my life with accomplishments I create, not just witness.”