My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I requested, read and reviewed an advance copy of this book within a few days. First I was eager, one might even say thirsty for it. Then I was hooked. Mia Sosa's The Worst Best Man is a fun multicultural romantic comedy with an opening that grabs you, an authentic voice, and a compelling enemies to lovers plot that hinges on the main characters’ forced close proximity.
Three years ago, Carolina Santos (Lina) was all but left at the altar by a runaway groom so cowardly that he left word with his little brother instead of breaking things off himself. Now though, life is looking up for our heroine. She's got a growing business, and the opportunity of a lifetime appears to be within reach. Lina’s work as a wedding planner has attracted the notice of the new CEO of one of D.C.’s best hotels who invites her to pitch/compete for a dream job as their new director of weddings. It’s an enticing prospect— lucrative compensation, creative flexibility and access to resources— but there is one catch. Going for it will force her into a close working relationship with her ex-fiancé’s brother Max, whose consulting firm is the company’s primary marketing partner. Lina is a professional, and she’s over her ex, but she’s not quite comfortable working with the brother she thinks played an influential role in their breakup.
As one might expect, tension and shenanigans follow. It’s immediately clear that Max and Lina have great chemistry both in and outside of the office, but their relationship is further complicated by cultural difference. Max is the kind of guy who has always known privilege—straight, white, good-looking and from a well-off family. Apart from living in the shadow of his older sibling, the world, for the most part, is Max's oyster. Lina’s situation is not that. She’s well-educated and has a wonderful family, but as a child of immigrants and an Afro-Latinx woman, she’s used to having her behavior and emotional expression policed. As a result, Lina has trained herself to keep her feelings on a tight leash:
My tone of voice is exactly as it should be: calm and even. In truth, I regularly monitor my daily emotional output the way some people track their daily caloric intake, and since my mother and I just shared a few teary-eyed minutes together, I’m either fresh out of feelings or close to exceeding today’s quota.
Part of this self-scrutiny is in Lina’s individual DNA, but we can also tell from what’s floating around in her head that this is learned behavior-- that it's about how she'll be judged in light of her race, class and gender. Max doesn’t understand, but readers like myself can probably relate.
Since Max doesn't quite grasp how these things have shaped Lina's experience, choices and her reticence to jump into a relationship with him, that adds to their challenge. It’s bad for them (at first), but it does make for an entertaining love story. Max, unlike his brother, has both the good taste to appreciate Lina and the strength of character to navigate a difficult situation. Both main characters are multi-dimensional, the forced proximity context makes sense, and the result is compelling and original.
Mia Sosa is a skilled social observer and she pays close attention to Lina’s family and cultural background, which enriches the story a great deal. She also has a great sense of humor as an author, and she does a good job of balancing the angst with the laughs. The bits where we observe Lina in her element are hilarious. For example:
Many a wedding has been destroyed by the effects of an open bar. My skin still crawls when I remember the groom who removed his new partner’s underwear instead of her garter. Gah.
Stories that hinge on forced proximity don’t always work for me. They can feel overly contrived and the closeness unnecessary. But this scenario and Lina and Max's collaboration made sense to me. I’d go through a lot for a life-changing opportunity in my field.
The one thing I struggled with was how Lina’s conflicting feelings negatively affected her professional conduct at times whereas Max seemed to find a constructive balance. Lina is at cross purposes for much of the book. She wants to shut Max out of the pitch development process, but clearly that won’t help her get the job. She wants to make him suffer for possibly thinking she wasn't good enough for his brother. Overall, she’s just in a more precarious situation, and yet I wanted her to be more of a hero of the story. I wanted her eyes on the prize. I wanted her to shine. And I wanted her to be emotionally open to this risky relationship. There's a double bind for you! That might be unfair. I’m still struggling with that and the question of whether I’m expecting too much of her because she's a female protagonist (as readers often do) given the structural constraints I've already acknowledged. Either way, the fact that this book caused me to ask those questions and think about them at length is a triumph, and reading The Worst Best Man was a pleasure.
Tropes and themes: Interracial romance; Forced proximity; Enemies to lovers.
I was lucky and very grateful to receive an advance review copy of this book through Edelweiss+. My opinions are my own.
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