Alexis Daria’s You Had Me At Hola had quite the romance reading “buzz” and, as a result, I was both curious and keen to read it. In concept and structure, it was cool to find another novel paralleling Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Again with its double narrative of “real-life” television-show set and fictive Regency romance. You Had Me At Hola‘s double narrative has a “real-life” romance between the two stars of a streaming service( Net-, or Passion-flix?) contemporary Latinx reunited-husband-and-wife fictive-romance. In concept, this sounded terrific and, from the blurbish promise, a rom-com was exactly what I needed. What I read instead is an okay scripted romance and uneven, serious contemporary romance: weak in rom and sans-com. You Had Me at Hola was better in concept than execution, peppered with a few marvelous scenes like the chocolate chips in your cookie, while the rest was unpalatable cookie-dough filler. I’ll share the blurb and send a warning that anything beyond the text-break contains spoilers:
After a messy public breakup, soap opera darling Jasmine Lin Rodriguez finds her face splashed across the tabloids. When she returns to her hometown of New York City to film the starring role in a bilingual romantic comedy for the number one streaming service in the country, Jasmine figures her new “Leading Lady Plan” should be easy enough to follow—until a casting shake-up pairs her with telenovela hunk Ashton Suárez.
After his last telenovela character was killed off, Ashton is worried his career is dead as well. Joining this new cast as a last-minute addition will give him the chance to show off his acting chops to American audiences and ping the radar of Hollywood casting agents. To make it work, he’ll need to generate smoking-hot on-screen chemistry with Jasmine. Easier said than done, especially when a disastrous first impression smothers the embers of whatever sexual heat they might have had.
With their careers on the line, Jasmine and Ashton agree to rehearse in private. But rehearsal leads to kissing, and kissing leads to a behind-the-scenes romance worthy of a soap opera. While their on-screen performance improves, the media spotlight on Jasmine soon threatens to destroy her new image and expose Ashton’s most closely guarded secret.
Reading You Had Me at Hola was like seeing Daria’s outline, writing plan, and agenda all at once. There were things she wanted to say and do and it made the novel feel like a project instead of something genuine and natural. It showed effort and care, but it was never an immersively buoyant reading experience. There simply wasn’t any wiggle-room for the reader to make some choices about what she was going to feel, well, in my case, ouch, other than boredom; most of the blame for that can be laid at her protagonists’ feet. Jasmine has middle-child syndrome and needs love and approval. She has found it in the past with awful boyfriends, but in love with Ashton, well, she hits the jackpot, because he’s a good guy. Ashton, in turn, is handsome and loving and a great lover, but he has his own issues. Eight years ago, he had an affair with a co-star; she got pregnant, rejected the baby, and he became a full-time, single dad … until the night, eight years ago, when a stalker made his way into the baby’s, Yadiel’s, room. Ashton moved his son to Puerto Rico where his father and grandparents take care of him and Ashton visits as often and for as long as he can, hoping in this way to protect him forever. Since then, Ashton is super-cautious, keeps out of the limelight, and eschews work romance. Until Jasmine, of course. Because she really is a lovely person, funny, affectionate, the cast’s most-likeable, Miss Congeniality herself.
Two lovely people, with issues, become lovers and fall in love (another beef I had was the clinical, flat love scenes, explicit as heck and uninspired) as they open up and confess their vulnerabilities. Except it didn’t make for a terribly interesting narrative: Jasmine and Ashton never come alive. I didn’t feel I was reading a romance, but case studies. I’m no psychologist, but rather than immersing myself in their story, I wanted to take notes on my diagnoses of their “issues”: Jasmine needs therapy for her people-pleasing ways and self-soothing-with-alcohol and Ashton, for his post-stalker PTSD. Sadly, the epilogue, once I’d slogged my way there, proved me right. To boot, Daria’s prose didn’t help: it was declarative in that recent way with romance that annoys me. You know, how the hero has profound thoughts about the heroine, as in “She was an incredible woman.” *eye roll* It’s hard to read a book made of a mutual-admiration society rather than spark and banter. I say bring on the “problematic” romance.
In the end, there was spark and com in every scene involving the secondary characters. Jasmine has two hilarious cousins and a funny family, as does Ashton. I was relieved when they entered the scene. Yadiel, a rambunctious eight-year-old, prone to walking on furniture and launching himself affectionately at people, was delightful. As for Mr. and Mrs. Congeniality, well, enough to say, with Miss Austen, they were “downright labour,” Emma.
Alexis Daria’s You Had Me at Hola is published by Avon. It was released in July of 2020 and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-ARC from Avon Books, via Edelweiss+.