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April hates men. She hates their selfishness, “how they take up so much space,” “how they expect you to do all the emotional labor,” and so much more. A series of romantic disappointments and personal traumas has left this 33-year-old Londoner at the end of her rope. So when the guy she’s seeing turns out to be a jerk like all the rest, she decides it’s time to give men a taste of their own medicine.

April develops a persona, Gretel, who she imagines is the kind of woman every guy wants --- “your regular everyday Manic Pixie Dream Girl Next Door Slut With No Problems.” Her new online dating profile works like a charm, and before long she’s seeing Joshua, a nice-guy coder who has no idea he’s about to become the subject of her social experiment. Of course, Josh (unsurprisingly) turns out to be not quite like all those other guys, and April is forced to confront her growing feelings for him and the lie she’s spun to make the relationship work.

"Bourne adds depth by not shying away from the dark side of male-female relationships in this fresh, honest romance for the #MeToo era."

Holly Bourne’s second novel for adults, after HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW?, puts a feminist spin on the traditional rom-com and doesn’t shy away from engaging in serious issues. April is not just some frustrated singleton a la Bridget Jones. Yes, she “really want[s] a relationship,” but her desire for love and intimacy is complicated by past scars. Ryan, her previous boyfriend, raped her, and the experience has left her distrustful of men and made sex “complicated.” In a stingingly honest chapter, April reflects on how, when it comes to sexuality, being raped “changes nothing and yet it also changes everything. Sex is never the same, not quite.” Plus, she works at a sex-and-relationship nonprofit, where part of her job entails answering anonymous emails, many from women who’ve been assaulted (the book’s frank discussions of sexual trauma might be upsetting to some readers). April knows that not all men are rapists or abusers, but she doesn’t quite believe it. As one of her co-workers says, “If you worked for a charity that deals with victims of dog bites, you’d start to believe that all dogs bite.”

As a main character, April is relatable, if not always endearing. Her mental health is clearly fragile. She is anxious and angry, and has difficulty processing her negative emotions, which causes problems not just in her romantic life but also in her career. At times, it seems like what she needs most is to log off the dating apps and spend some serious time working on healing from past abuse. “You need some help,” her friend and roommate Megan tells April late in the book. April agrees, eventually pursuing therapy. She also joins an all-female boxing class for survivors of trauma; the cathartic sessions give her a healthy way to vent her rage. And she eventually comes clean to Josh, who accepts the news that she is not who she says she is with surprising grace and understanding.

April’s romance with Josh is built on a lie, but PRETENDING never fails to be candid, even about life’s bitter moments. Dating can be brutal, people of all genders have the capacity to be cruel, and relationships, even the best of them, are often difficult. One thing that helps temper the ugliness is humor, which Bourne’s book fortunately has a lot of. Anyone who has ever suffered through an awkward bachelorette party will laugh as April gamely heads down to Brighton, where “brides-to-be hold court in their cheap veils,” to celebrate her friend Chrissy’s upcoming wedding. Short chapters where Gretel offers advice on dating brilliantly skewer society’s expectations for heterosexual women seeking love. “Of course you should make an effort with your appearance,” Gretel says of first dates. “But don’t make it obvious you’ve made too much effort. Not too sexy, not too prudish. Remember --- channel Goldilocks.”

Despite its feminist message, PRETENDING doesn’t stray too far from the rom-com playbook. Finding the right guy is still the goal, and a happy ending is guaranteed. But Bourne adds depth by not shying away from the dark side of male-female relationships in this fresh, honest romance for the #MeToo era.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on November 20, 2020

by Holly Bourne

  • Publication Date: November 17, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Mira
  • ISBN-10: 0778331504
  • ISBN-13: 9780778331506