I’ve noticed quite a few romance novel doppelgangers lately and thought it would be fun to review books with similar themes and see how each book plays with them.
Love & Others Disasters by Anita Kelly and Chef’s Kiss by TJ Alexander are both debut* grumpy/sunshine queer romances centered around cooking and feature a cis female mc and an AFAB nonbinary mc.
Love & Other Disasters by Anita Kelly
Love & Other Disasters is a hot-bloodied character-driven romance about defining yourself on your own terms. I think of this book as a capital R romance novel because the stakes of the novel are centered entirely on the emotional relationship between our main characters–Dahlia Woodson and London Parker.
The book opens with their Crash Into Hello meet cute on the set of Chef’s Special, a competition-style cooking show for home cooks. The stoic London is transfixed by Dahlia’s bubbly attitude. As the two amateur cooks take on the competition, an intense attraction begins to develop.
This book packs quite a bit of emotional angst for both main characters. London is nonbinary and decides to be out on the show, which causes some problems in their family back home. Dahlia is bankrupt, recently divorced and struggling to figure out who she is outside of her marriage. The show gives Dahlia and London an opportunity hit pause on their lives and discover who they are outside of what they have always been.
I was all in for the Top Chef style cooking show setting. It works well as forced proximity since everyone is sequestered in a hotel together. It’s also a clever way to create stakes because you don’t know when or if a character will have to leave. If you are a fan of reality shows you will have to handwave some elements for the sake of the story. Like, the characters go home after they are kicked off when in reality they’d probably just be in a different hotel.
Audiobook narrator Lindsay Dorcus provides solid narration for the audiobook. Her voice has a warm dulcet tone that just melts into the background. I picked this up as an Audible Daily Deal and am happy to have discovered a new-to-me narrator.
Chef’s Kiss by TJ Alexander
I listened to Chef’s Kiss right after Love & Other Disasters and was afraid I’d get plot points confused but that wasn’t an issue at all because Chef’s Kiss is a very different book from Love & Other Disasters.
Chef’s Kiss has a quirkier vibe and reads like a broad office sitcom. The romantic relationship is more a feature of the book than the driving plot of the story.
Chef’s Kiss is told exclusively from the POV of Simone Larkspur, a classically trained pastry chef working her dream job at a stodgy gourmet food magazine. Her perfectly ordered life is turned upside down when the magazine decides to pivot to video and her videos with Ray Lyton, the chaotic new test kitchen manager, go viral.
It took me a while to settle into the groove of this story. Simone is the grump to Ray’s sunshine but in the beginning, Simone came off as mean and judgemental towards Ray for no reason. Once Simone got with the program, I enjoyed their fun opposite-attract dynamic.
Simone and Ray build their connection through cooking for each other and sharing recipes. Everything in this book sounds delicious and I was excited to find out there in an entire recipe booklet on Alexander’s website. This is a slower burn romance with a single sex scene that takes place towards the end.
This book is a lot more didactic about trans and nonbinary people than Love & Other Disasters. Ray is not out so for the first 50% and everyone uses she/her pronouns for them. Ray’s gender identity is the source of the major plot conflict and I think this book would have benefited a lot from including their POV.
I think it’s fair to say the main characters are inspired by Claire Saffitz and Brad Leone from Bon Apetit’s viral YouTube videos. Simone is a meticulous pastry chef who lives in the Upper West Side. Ray is the tall, talkative kitchen manager who likes to ferment things. They work in a test kitchen. Their fans are in love with their dynamic.
It’s really funny to me that Alexander never mentions Bon Apetit when promoting this book. The plot turns into, essentially, a roman à clef of what happened to Bon Apetit in summer 2020 except instead of racism it’s transphobia. I’d be curious what Alexander’s insights are on what happened with Bon Appetit and how they approached writing this book with that in mind.
The only evidence I could find that Alexander is even aware of the fandom is from a March 2020 article in the Mary Sue where they mentioned how Test Kitchen videos were getting them through the pandemic and they learned about Bon Apetit fanfic. It’s so obviously based on this so I’m not sure why they’re treating it like a secret.
I was blown away by the audiobook narration by trans actor and narrator Em Grosland. They have such a distinct range of voices that I was CONVINCED there were two different people on the audiobook. I hope we see more of them in romance audiobooks!
I enjoyed these books for different reasons and earlier this month both Alexander and Kelly announced their followups. I see myself reading more from both of them but I especially want to see what Alexander does when the book’s plot isn’t hinged on real people and events.
*Kelly has self-published novellas but this is their first novel.