In our Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute book review, we want to examine how Talia Hibbert perfected the modern romance for young adults.
In recent years, conversations about desirability politics have become more mainstream. The archetype of the romcom main character is changing—no longer is she exclusively thin, blonde, blue-eyed, and, above all, white. Romance as a genre is often undersold and underestimated due to the fact that its primary fanbase consists of women, causing the general population to view it as superficial and unimportant. However, who is and is not allowed to be desirable matters, because who we are taught to see as worth loving in media influences who we think is worth loving as we move through the world. This is something Talia Hibbert understands, and with her first foray into the YA romance space, she makes a clear statement about who is romantic lead material.
In Talia Hibbert’s Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute, we get a friends-to-enemies-to-lovers arc that trades tropey attention-grabbing moments for the real emotions that come with complex and changing relationships. The book follows Celine, a brilliant and cutting Black girl who is set on taking over the world and proving that aliens are real, as well as Bradley, a charming and unfailingly kind Black boy who is balancing the expectations of everyone around him. Bradley and Celine were best friends, and then they weren’t, both believing the other left them in the dust. When an opportunity neither of them can pass up arrives in the form of a wilderness retreat that offers a potential university scholarship, they are forced back into close quarters. Of course, this is a romance novel, and so, romance ensues.
Celine is such a special main character for this genre, and that’s something I really wanted to highlight in my Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute book review. We are all familiar with the manic pixie dream girl—just think about nearly any character Zoe Deschanel has played, a type of woman that has dominated the romance genre in both books and movies since the early 2000s. A woman created for men, she is petite, so she doesn’t take up too much space; she is carefree, so she can lift men out of their everyday monotony; she appears to have no needs or desires of her own, so she can exist only to meet him. She is completely and totally unrealistic. Celine is none of those things. She is often the smartest person in the room, and never considers dampening her own intelligence to make others more comfortable. Celine is not friendly; her humor is biting, and she is known as a confident loner. Celine does not make herself small; she has a Tikok page dedicated to conspiracy theories, lime green braids, a plan to take over the world, and is a fat Black girl. Celine is a fully fleshed out person, a character that could feel like you, or your sister, or your friend, and she is shown as desirable.
Celine is not the only subversive character I want to talk about in my Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute book review. The leading man, Bradley, usurps just as many archaic traditions for the romantic lead. Often, “tall, dark, and handsome” means a bland white man over six feet tall with brunette hair and arrogance as his central personality trait. This trope has its roots in Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, but seems to forget the second half of Austen’s novel where the character relents his pride and actually likes his love interest. Bradley is popular at school, he plays football (soccer for the Americans), and makes the grades that set him up for a successful future law degree. However, Bradley is also bisexual, casually referencing old crushes on teammates without any hint of self-loathing. Bradley has been diagnosed with OCD, and we see his coping mechanisms and symptoms through his points of view. Bradley is a Black boy who could actually be called “tall, dark, and handsome.” As powerful as it is to put Celine in the position of the desired, Hibbert makes an equally important statement with her characterization of Bradley in the story.
Romance is a genre that relies on a pre-set structure, and while some misinformed folks may point to this as a lack of creativity, producing truly unique stories within this format time and again is no small skill. There is a meet-cute, a period of friendship with building tension, outside circumstances that keep the couple apart, a third-act break-up, and always a happy ending. This genre consistently produces stories where good things happen to women, where no harm comes to women, and where women get everything they want in the end. This is a powerful narrative to experience when a large part of media uses violence against women as character development for the leading man. This becomes even more important and subversive when the characters who are allowed to exist in a world without real harm look like people experiencing the intense harm of marginalization everyday.
Another hallmark of the romance genre is individual character development for both leads, and Talia Hibbert does this better than just about anyone else writing today. My Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute book review aims to point out how Hibbert is a giant in her genre, even beyond the strides she is making in representation. It is pretty standard for each of the main characters in a romance novel to work through an internal emotional plot before being ready to find their happily ever after, but no one is doing this like Hibbert. This knack for character development was seen in her prior adult romance trilogy, the Brown Sisters, that many assumed would be a career best. In Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute, Hibbert shows this is simply her standard. Celine has a rich inner life, and we are witness tothis young woman evaluating her own coping mechanisms and learning vulnerability in the midst of aYA rom-com, something few authors could balance so well. Bradley is a fully fleshed out character as well, and goes on a deeply felt journey of learning to prioritize his expectations for his life rather than others’. In addition to being excellent writing, watching both characters experience emotional growth before entering a relationship provides a healthy example for the young adults this book was written for.
Both Celine and Bradley represent several layers of identities that have been relegated to comedic relief, side character, villain, or not even on the page. Whether you are a long-term fan of romance as a genre or just untangling your own internalized misogyny enough to finally give it a try, we recommend Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute by Talia Hibbert as your next book.
‘Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute’ hit store shelves on January 3, 2023
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