Book Reviews

Review: Lunar New Love by Ophelia Silk

Ophelia Silk is branching out with a new contemporary romance – but you should still expect great queer characters and a wonderful time!

Book: Lunar New Love by Ophelia Silk

Publication date: 1st February 2022

Ownership: E-ARC sent free of charge by the author. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: Lots of discussion of past and off-page transphobia/biphobia/anti-queerness, and one instance of present/on-page harasssment, including from family; recovery from emotional abuse from family and romantic partners.

How about a fake dating trade-off?

Minh has a problem. They’ve accidentally told their grandmother they’d come with their partner for Tết Holiday – Vietnamese Lunar New Year – this Saturday, and it’s too late to take it back. Not only has Minh not been to a family gathering since their disastrous coming out three years ago, they also don’t have a partner to show up with. The solution? A fake partner. And of all the people Minh knows, the perfect match turns out to be Cass Beauregard, the one member of their friend group they can’t get along with.

Cass has a goddamn problem. The day she dumped her cheating boyfriend, she challenged him to an eventual double date to show him just how fast she could find somebody else and how much she didn’t need him. But now said double-date is on Sunday and Cass still doesn’t have a new partner. The solution? Minh Loisel-Tran and their own problem. When they ask her to fake date them for Têt Holiday, Cass agrees on the one condition that they do the same for her the next day.

Minh and Cass are polar opposites: one too soft and the other too brash. There is no way one weekend of fake dating is going to go well… or is there? Minh and Cass might not be as incompatible as they thought. Will this little deal be just a parenthesis in their usual disagreements, or could it lead to something more?

I don’t read a lot of contemporary romance at all, but I’m always down to read any Ophelia Silk book, so I approached Lunar New Love with a little bit of trepidation; I knew it would be good, but I wasn’t sure if it would suit my taste personally. However, I absolutely shouldn’t have worried. I read this as a kind of break after a run of disappointing fantasy, and it was the perfect palate cleanser. It’s fun, and laugh-out-loud funny in places, but it’s also sweet and heartfelt, and incredibly cosy. I never once felt short-changed because it wasn’t magical as well!

I have so much to say about this book, I barely know where to start. Let’s pick the characters at random, because this is at its heart a character-focused story. I think this is the first time I’ve read a romance where both leads have been non-binary, and I thought it was such a lovely, nuanced depiction of two very different queer experiences: Minh is agender and uses they/them pronouns, while Cass is genderfluid, sometimes using she/her pronouns and answering to Cassandra, sometimes going by Apollo and he/him pronouns. Minh is out to their family, who have accepted them after a wobbly start; Cass has broken off all contact with their abusive family. Minh is quiet, open, gentle; Cass is sharp, defensive, dramatic. At first, their queerness is literally the only thing they have in common, and it’s fascinating to see them awkwardly begin to connect when they agree to pretend date for one weekend. I loved how deeply real they both felt – you can absolutely see how their experiences have shaped them, but also, they both still feel like works-in-progress, like people who are able to (and may indeed want to) grow and change.

Fake dating is a trope I really enjoy in any romance, and I really liked the take on it here; not exactly enemies-to-lovers, more ‘that one person in your friendship group that you don’t actually like that much’-to-lovers. Cass and Minh are, at first glance, poor candidates to even be friends, since one is a big softie and one is a prickly sarcasm machine, but I absolutely loved watching them navigate those differences and find ways to interact with each other that work for them both, especially because the changes in communication aren’t motivated by romantic interest, just by the wish to be a decent person. There’s a kindness that suffuses this book that’s quite separate from the romance thread, and I really enjoyed how that gave everything – even the trickier content – a feeling of safety and comfiness. This isn’t just true of the two leads, either – all the scenes with the bustle of Minh’s family are delightful, and I loved seeing the adults of the family offer such gentleness and love to both Minh and Cass. It’s so cosy, and that part of the book has such a perfect holiday feel.

There are some difficult themes here, though, and I do urge anyone who is sensitive to depictions of emotional abuse to tread carefully; Minh’s history with their ex, in particular, felt very emotionally intense. Even though the descriptions of any kind of abuse or queerphobia in the book are never gratuitous in their language, and the story doesn’t focus on the incidents so much as the healing, there’s a realism to how deeply both leads have been hurt by people in the past. I really don’t want to make it sound like this is a particularly dark book, because it really isn’t – it’s actually very fluffy! – but healing from trauma and learning to trust a new partner are strong themes.

One thing I really enjoyed about this was the focus on the normality of boundaries, comfort, and consent in relationships; it’s handled absolutely effortlessly by the author. By that, I don’t necessarily mean that it’s easy for the characters to handle their own boundaries, as that’s a major part of the emotional arc for each, but that the narrative deals with consent and boundaries as an integral, necessary part of relationships, and pulls it off with such smoothness that it never feels preachy, just a practical part of life. Even when they’re not getting on, Minh and Cass are always respectful of each others’ pronouns and physical boundaries (and so, for the most part, are the rest of the characters) and I really appreciated seeing how non-negotiable this decency was. It made me think how much I wish this was the norm for everyone; it’s wonderful to see a fictional relationship just address things with such ease.

I’m saying a lot about the vibe of this book and not a lot about the plot, because I think that with romance that’s what you need to know to tempt you. So, if you’re looking for a cosy, adorable read that is wonderfully, diversely queer and incredibly sweet, I can’t recommend this enough. Five out of five cats!

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