Fiction, Reviews

The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochrun

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*There may be spoilers in the content warning section above the summary. Tread lightly!*

Thank you to NetGalley and Atria Books for the digital ARC – which we received in exchange for an honest review.
Published: September 2021
Genre: Romance
Representation: People of Colour (Indian, Chinese, Black, and Multiracial characters); LGBTQIA2S+ (MLM, WLW, Pansexual, Lesbian, Bisexual, Asexual, and Non-Binary characters); Mental Health.
Content Warning: severe anxiety/panic disorder and related episodes, severe phobia of germs; being assaulted; biphobic comments; racism and knowingly perpetuating racial tropes via a large platform; stigma against borderline personality disorder; using “crazy” to describe someone struggling with mental health; suffering from an OCD episode; homophobia; depressive episode; anti-mental health ableism; substance use.

Summary

In this witty and heartwarming romantic comedy—reminiscent of Red, White & Royal Blue and One to Watch—an awkward tech wunderkind on a reality dating show goes off-script when sparks fly with his producer. 

Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.

Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever After expects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date twenty women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.

As Dev fights to get Charlie to open up to the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told. 

— summary from Alison Cochrun’s website

Review

Well, this book is it. When it comes to our dedication to diverse reads and our unwavering love of happily-ever-afters, The Charm Offensive has it all. If the premise of the book isn’t enough to intrigue you, it has also been marketed as a fusion between Red, White, and Royal Blue and One to Watch – but if we’re honest, we’ve become wary of these types of comparisons after the marketing team for Honey Girl claimed it was a lesbian version of RWAB, and then turned out to be so far from that in our minds (it was definitely a phenomenal read, nonetheless). The Charm Offensive, on the other hand, is a great balance of the heartwarmingly tender and painfully honest approach that we loved so much about RWAB, but with its own unique flavour of emotional devastation, mixed with earnest discussions of mental health and queer identities – ALL WRAPPED UP in a let’s-take-on-the-problematic-aspects-of-reality-shows-like-The-Bachelor-driven plot line following two absolute messes in the form of Dev Deshpande and Charlie Winshaw. Say all that five times fast!

This is one of those books where we were venting and raving to each other the whole time we were reading it (we have screenshots!). There is so much we loved about it – from the kind and honest conversations about sexuality and mental health, to the unbearably tender moments shared between characters (friends and romantic interests alike). On top of that, there is so much diversity within the novel’s pages that frankly puts many other fiction writers to shame. Well and truly, this has got to be one of our favourite books of the year.

Truth be told, we kinda hate the whole reality show industry, especially in the form of shows like the Bachelor and the Bachelorette. But wait! Don’t leave us yet! We know this is a contentious belief, and we truly do see the appeal of these types of shows. Dev himself exclaims numerous times in the novel, singing praises about how these shows are meant to highlight love above all else. But honestly, there is so much that can be problematic about the way these programs are set up and run. The incredible thing about The Charm Offensive, among other things, is that it does a phenomenal job of balancing the sweet romanticism of these shows with the problematic stereotypes and tropes that they push simultaneously. It’s an honest look at the industry, from every perspective, which is what makes the whole plot-line all the more satisfying. We love the writing style, whereby each chapter notes which week of the TV show it corresponds to, including some behind-the-scenes editor notes following certain shots. It allows the reader to feel fully immersed in the reality dating-show setting that the author has created for us, and allows us to feel the tension that builds as each week passes, along with the strain that the show puts on the cast and crew. There is, of course, the sweet relationships that also build behind the camera, but we only see them in glimpses and suggestions here and there until everything hits you all at once. The writing style is also so vivid that you can’t help but feel like you’re there, travelling around the world with the cast and crew of the show, and experiencing every funny, sweet, and awkward moment throughout the novel.

Now, if you’ve been following us for a while, or if you’ve read some of our other reviews, you know that along with diversity, we are big fans of advocating for and educating about topics such as the LGBTQIA2S+ community and mental health. Alison Cochrun thoughtfully explores such subject matter in a way that we have seen criticized by some readers – namely, that the book is quite heavy-handed on the educational bits regarding mental health and queer identities. We can totally appreciate that outlook on the novel, we personally found a deep sense of validation and the feeling of being seen through these discussions. Yes, the educational bits weren’t quite for us. As queer and neurodivergent folks, we didn’t learn much (if anything) new from those tidbits meant to teach you something new about your mind and identity if you haven’t had a chance to explore them. But that’s exactly the point – for many people, this could seek to be a way to understand things about yourself that you haven’t had the tools to do already. For instance, Abarna has, in recent months, been exploring what’s out there in terms of queer labels, and realizing that some fit better than other, more commonly-used ones. This all happened before she picked up The Charm Offensive, so it was incredibly validating to watch a character struggle to understand and label their own identity as it contradicted what they used to believe about themselves. On the other hand, Bec finds that representation can be hard to come by with certain queer labels (like thoughts on the asexual spectrum), and it’s incredible to see more than one character identify as being on the asexual spectrum and normalize it in a way that isn’t often seen. 

As charming as the romance can be, we do have to stress that this isn’t a light novel. Similar to books like Honey Girl, for example, the romance in The Charm Offensive is undeniably sweet. However, the discussions involving mental health can be especially triggering for some folks (ourselves included). While there isn’t anything overly traumatic discussed (although we recognize that this is subjective and can vary from person to person), there is a lot of absolutely brutal honesty about struggling with mental health difficulties long term, and the shame that can sometimes be placed on you by people who you care about. It is so honest about the way that you can be brutalized by your own mental health, that it can sometimes be difficult to read and as such, you may need to take space from it depending on where you are in your journey. To us, the topic was approached carefully and thoughtfully, but no matter how you slice it, these kinds of depictions can be difficult to get through if you suffer from or have suffered from similar experiences. Please be kind to yourself while you’re reading, and take your time as needed. We feel the pay-off is well worth it, as there is heart-warming and hard-earned happily-ever-after, complete with a dollop of emotional discovery and self care. 

Overall, we absolutely adored this book. We are so excited to get our hands on the physical copy when it publishes – and we will happily share some of our favourite quotes when we are allowed to! As you might know, pre-ordering matters a ton in the publishing industry, so if you have the means, and we’ve done a good enough job at selling this book to you, please pre-order and help the author out!

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