Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Book Review: Hot Mess

By Jami Deise

Most of us who read or watch romantic comedies know the drill: We get a “girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy” story; we root for the couple to end up together and live happily ever after. But life today delivers a different type of love story, and as I read Emily Belden’s debut novel, Hot Mess, I rooted for the protagonist to dump her boyfriend and get on with her life without him.

Allie Simon is a 25 year-old living in Chicago, and in many ways, she’s emblematic of the millennial generation. She met her boyfriend on Twitter. She works in digital marketing. She lives in a 550 square foot apartment. In other ways, she isn’t—somehow she has managed to save thirty thousand dollars. But the biggest way Allie’s story feels ripe for the time is that her boyfriend, cyber-famous chef Benji Zane, is an addict. Although coke, not heroin, is Benji’s weakness, it’s not difficult to see their story as illustrative of every couple involved in a love triangle between two people and a mood-altering substance.

How does an otherwise intelligent, hard-working person end up in a relationship with an addict? Why does she believe his lies? What lies does she tell herself to justify staying with him? Because the story is told from Allie’s first-person perspective, readers get an up-close-and-personal look at her thought process. When we first meet Allie, she and Benji have been together for awhile, so we don’t get to experience the early part of their relationship as it unfolds. The opening scene is Allie running one of Benji’s sold-out “pop up” dining experiences. He’s a bad boy chef who can’t hold a real job, so he’s forced to cook in other people’s spaces, and she has to hold the money because otherwise it might go in his crack pipe. It’s a very long opening scene because Belden intersperses it with all the back story about Allie and Benji’s relationship, including information about Allie’s job, Allie’s best friends (whom she’ll casually blow off if something comes up with Benji, and pout for their attention if they are busy on a night when Benji is otherwise occupied), Allie’s parents. Belden has a strong, confident narrative voice, but that opening scene is so weighed down with all this back story that I originally thought Hot Mess was the second in a series, and she was bringing me up to speed with what happened in the first book. When I realized that wasn’t the case, I was tempted to give up on the book. (It’s also long for the genre, clocking in at over 400 pages.) But I’m glad I didn’t, because Belden hit her stride soon after, easily balancing present scenes with exposition and back story.

Complications ensue when Benji is offered a chance at part ownership in a new restaurant that will open on Chicago’s famed Randolph Street. Benji is so broke he’s spending his days on Allie’s couch, but Allie has that thirty grand in savings. She’s already risked her heart… will she risk all her money on Benji’s sobriety? As the book’s blurb reveals, Allie’s faith in Benji is misplaced. Once Benji relapses, Allie’s only option to recover her money is to go to work for the restaurant he abandoned.

At this point, the book stops being about Allie and Benji and starts being about all the minutiae involved in opening a restaurant. This “you are there” behind-the-scenes look is exhausting, but probably riveting for folks who like to watch shows like Vanderpump Rules or the latest Gordon Ramsay. As I’m not a foodie (my idea of gourmet is a high-level ice cream), I found my interest flagging during the latter half of the book, but I stuck around for the inevitable reunion with Benji. Will Allie learn her lesson, or does love conquer all, even with an addict? Of course addicts deserve love—everyone does—but what happens to those who love them?

For what it’s worth, I never felt Benji deserved Allie’s devotion, even when he was ostensibly clean. He was the star of their relationship, and she was expected to be the planet orbiting around him. The most telling fact of all: Benji refused to perform a sexual activity crucial to female enjoyment, and Allie accepted that because of his “sensitive chef taste buds.” Millennial women: Even more than addiction, this is a deal-breaker.

While Hot Mess might feel very timely due to its emphasis on life in cyberspace, addiction, and money issues, at its heart it’s a timeless story. Women, you are the center of your own life. Any man who sees you as second to him does not deserve to be part of it.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the book in exchange for an honest review. Visit all the stops on Emily's tour.


Elizabeth Parker said...

Great review, Melissa - off to bookmark this one!

Heather J @ TLC Book Tours said...

Thanks for being a part of the tour!