I have a bone to pick with Ms Lopez: Hate Crush kept me up two work nights in a row. Harrumph. And I need my sleep, so kudos and curse you, Lopez, for writing this unputdownable thing. I loved Lopez’s Filthy Rich début, Lush Money, but I loved Hate Crush even more. The two carry my favourite romance tropes: marriage-of-convenience in the former and second-chance, in the latter. In Ms Lopez’s hands, the tropes dance and sing and come alive. Her characters are MESSY, visceral, intense, their conflict and emotions over-the-top; she carries the reader on a wave of energetic prose, unselfconscious, moving steadily in service to the HEA and her characters’ needs, transformations, and realizations.
Lopez’s premise is outlandish and improbable, but this is what makes romance, romance. I’m never taken aback by the genre’s propensity for “outlandish and improbable,” heck, literature is built on it. (Have you read A Midsummer Night’s Dream?) When an author has the genre’s integrity in sight and writes the outlandish and improbable in service to an arc of love’s redemptive power, I’m cool with an eye-rolling premise.
Hate Crush sees bad-boy, disgraced (rumours of song plagiarism; band-mate’s/best friend’s suicide) rocker-hero, Aish Salinger, answer the call to a fake relationship, in his first and only great love’s fictional Spanish kingdom, Monte del Vino Real, with her, Princess Sofia. Sofia hates his guts, what’s in it for her? A rock of notoriety and publicity lobbed at the nay-sayers of her years-long struggle to bring new wine-making methods to her kingdom. Affair with an old flame? Check. But she lays down the law: keep your tattoos covered and your butt far far away from me. Kissy and moon-eyed for the cameras only. On the other hand, for Aish, this is a chance to clean off his in-the-gutter reputation; truer to his heart, to make amends, ask forgiveness of Sofia. And so, with his hollow-eyed, hungover arrival, we’re off …
Sofia’s contempt and hatred for Aish, justified I might add … are revealed in alternating chapters, between the ice-cold hatred of today, ten years after their affair, and the hearkening back to their young selves, Sofia at 19 and Aish at 21, and the halcyon summer they fell in love when Sofia apprenticed at Aish’s uncle’s California vineyard. The reason Lopez’s Hate Crush works so well is because it embraces its unabashed melodrama. We learn how Aish was in thrall to his best friend’s, John Hamilton’s, ambition for their band. Though he was wild for Sofia, truly loved her, he was young, stupid, selfish, ambitious, and allowed his loyalty to John and the “band” to come into competition with his love for Sofia. And then, ta-ta-ta-da!, a betrayal so awful, so painful, how can Sofia feel anything but hatred for Aish? For Aish, ten years of expiation, cowardly expiation, but expiation nonetheless.
And that leads me to my next point lauding Lopez’s romance: when you make the body as important to the organic development of the relationship as you do the talk, the sharing, the working-the-vineyards together, it really really works. It’s not only about the love scenes, which are frequent, explicit, and reflective of Aish and Sofia’s slow, gradual resurrection of their teen-love, at first, wary and desperate and gradually moving toward tenderness, but in every detail of their interactions: how they look at each other, what they notice … it isn’t attraction, but attention and importance.
Then, there’s the strength of Lopez’s setting: the hillside vine-permeated kingdom, the details of the Spanish culture, the intricacies of fine-wine-making. Lopez’s setting is rich in detail and transporting, like the intense emotions of her hero and heroine. The conflict between them, Aish’s contriteness and Sofia’s loathing, is compounded by the ever-present press, Sofia’s dysfunctional relationship with her awful parents, and the presence of saboteurs to her wine-making effort to save her kingdom and help her people. Sofia and Aish aren’t a slow-burn, they’re fire together. They’re familiar enough to the younger selves we meet and they’re also tempered by suffering from being apart and better at hiding as adults: Sofia seething with a betrayal that keeps her emotionally restrained and Aish hoping his songs and “ink” will reach Sofia somehow, will show her he is sorry and wants her back. They’re both wrong and right and Lopez shows slowly and surely how they grow and change: Aish sees his past “expiation” as preserving his spoiled-boy desire to have things come to him as immature. He has to make Sofia the centre. And Sofia has to soften, to find a way to forgive, to let her heart live again.
In the end, Lopez throws a loop in the plot to redeem Aish which I never saw coming and thought a cop-out. But maybe she had taken Aish to a place where a narrative contrivance was the only way she could go? I’m not sure and I can’t say I loved this part, but I loved Sofia’s anger and determination and Aish does a magnificent on-his-knees grovel and the darn thing did keep me up for two nights. To quote Miss Austen, who would be scandalized by Hate Crush, herein I see “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma. Also, I’m eager for Roman’s story in book #3.
Angelelina M. Lopez’s Hate Crush is published by Carina Press. It was released in June 2020 and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-galley from Carina Press, via Netgalley.