Miss Bates’s first reading of a Mira Lyn Kelly romance (from the defunct KISS line) left her murmuring “meh, meh, meh”. Her recent Kelly read, May the Best Man Win, The Best Men #1, was a different experience. Miss B’s pre-reading prejudice was wary to say the least, especially in light of that rom-com cover. She side-eyed May the Best Man Win for several days before taking the plunge.
There are several ways you capture Miss B’s reading respect and enjoyment: you make her laugh; you do something tropish-ly clever or twisty; or, you write well. Kelly did all three. Premise-wise, May the Best Man Win is run-of-the-mill. Built around four wise-cracking late-twenties buddies who play best man to a groom-buddy, find love and make their way, bruised and battered (there be reasons) to the altar. The novel uses a clever framing device (Miss Bates LOVES a good frame), opening with hero Jase Foster, staunch bachelorhood in place, playing best man to buddy Dean Skolnic, as only a best man can, by holding a trash can as Dean vomits. The other three male friends the series will be built around show up as groomsmen. Jase is caring, but feeling pretty superior as he looks down at the nervous-as-wreck groom. At the end of the novel, with Jase’s own wedding-HEA, we round off with a torn sleeve and cut lip.
With this opening, Miss Bates’s sly-enjoyment smile emerged: Kelly forfeited the trite and overused bridezilla scenario to focus on a nervous-ninny groom and his groomsmen, Jase included, as they play at their final primary-school antics with their departing, matrimonial-bound pal. There’s humour and nostalgia to their shenanigans, but an equal awareness that marriage and fidelity are the formula that will make their buddy happy. All clever and fun … but not half as much as Jase’s nemesis’s entry, high school antagonist Emily Klein, the bride’s maid of honour, and as Jase thinks, “Femily Fatale.”
Jase and Emily’s animosity is evident from the first moments of her introduction. It provides hilarious, sharp dialogue. Soon, the reader realizes the banter-filled antipathy covers a serious, sad, awful back-story:
… he’d finally seen her soft snow job to the cold, hard ice queen beneath. “Jackass,” she greeted, with a soft smile just for him.
“Emily. What can I do for you?”
Isn’t it marvelous? Emily’s staccato insult and Jase’s nasty, cool reply. Miss Bates thought, “I’m going to love this!” But as she already said, the funny hides hurt. Jase has judged and misunderstood Emily since high school’s “bad thing”. Emily, in turn, works hard to live up to Jase’s low opinion.
Jase and Emily’s one-up-man-ship make the novel fun and compelling. They compete for insults, for who cares for their respective bride or groom better, for jibes, ribs, and zingers. Their rivalry is clever and hilariously malicious. After Jase catches Emily sniffing the cologne on his tuxedo jacket, he doesn’t let her live it down. Nevertheless, he knows it’s only a matter of time before Emily gets her own back: “if payback was a bitch, her name was Emily Klein. And as much as he detested her, the woman was not without her wiles.” There’s friction and grudging respect for each other in the playing out of hostilities, evidence one of Miss B’s favourite Jase-Emily wedding-party exchanges:
Those long legs slid in next to his, all but ensuring she’d end up in his space under the table. Great. “You again,” she murmured, then tuning up a smile even he wouldn’t spot as a fraud, she asked, “Shitty day, I hope?”
“Worse every minute,” he assured her, meeting her grin and raising her a friendly shoulder bump that should have had steam shooting from her ears.
But they were on good behavior so she capped it, offering him a smarting pinch on the cheek and a singsong, “That’s what I like to hear.” Yeah, that was his girl.
At this point, Miss Bates figures you’re either going to love, or hate this. Miss Bates loved it.
How long can Kelly keep this up?, thought Miss B: clever, malicious tension has to give way. It does, with Miss B’s favourite Jase-Emily squabble, when they’re again paired at their mutual friends’ wedding as best man and maid of honour, thanks to their respective heights:
Emily blinked again, peering up into Jase’s face as she gave into the tears completely. “But I hate you.”
“I know, honey.” He pulled her to his chest, closing those powerful arms around her back so all she could do was crumble into him. “I feel the same way.” God, how could he make her feel so much better? How could burrowing her face against his shoulder feel so right? She drew a shaky breath, catching the scent of his cologne as he brushed his fingers through her hair.
Firstly, the contrast between Jase and Emily’s body language and what they say to each other is a hoot! Secondly, the reader is aching with curiosity for the moment they’ll break … because break they do and early. By chapter eight, Kelly has written several mind-blowing hawt love scenes for Emily and Jase. And then, clever, annoying girl, NOTHING. The bedroom door very firmly … closes.
Kelly scores unconventional with brilliant trope reversal. To this point, we have enemies-to-lovers conventional convention and we think we’re moving towards friends-with-benefits … blah blah blah … to love-revelations and HEA. Nope. Kelly moves her enemies-to-explosive-love-scene-lovers to … friends-without-benefits. She agonizingly paces her narrative away from closed bedroom door to no bedroom to intense emotional engagement to doozie-proportion-ed betrayal. May the Best Man Win is clever, heart-moving, and fresh. Miss Bates can’t wait for the next groom, Jase’s best man, stalwart cop Max Brandt, to get his matrimonial come-uppance. Kelly has written a romance worthy of Miss Austen’s “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Mira Lyn Kelly’s May the Best Man Win is published by Sourcebooks Casablanca. It was released in August 2016. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Sourcebooks, via Netgalley.