by Suzanne Park
**I received an ARC through Netgalley for an honest review.**
Melody Joo is a newly hired video game producer and finds herself in a toxic work environment, one that is both misogynistic and racist. This is in stark contrast to her prior workplace where her words alone garnered respect. To make matters worse, her new boss is also prone to tantrums when he doesn’t get his way.
Under pressure from the company’s board, her boss ends up pitching a new game meant to cater to female gamers, and it gets easily approved. The problem is the game is an idea Melody only meant as a joke–male strippers saving the world with female warriors guiding them. This catapults Melody into an unexpected position, much to the chagrin of her colleagues who do not believe she’s earned the position. As lead, she is in charge of the game’s development, and she also has to prove to those inside and outside of the company that she is capable of completing the task before her. Of course, she has to juggle this with her growing attraction to a member of her team–the new intern who is also the boss’ nephew–and trying to maintain a social life.
Loathe at First Sight is set in an industry I have not typically seen in romance/women’s fiction novels. It gives us a glimpse of the gaming industry from the perspective of a female lead character who goes against classic stereotypes. Melody is an assertive Asian woman who is more soft than bone, likes food more than dieting, and is truly comfortable in her skin. She’s funny. She’s straight forward. She sticks up for herself when necessary. Being assertive can also have its downsides. Having to stick up for herself and having to push back when her abilities are called into question also means she doesn’t typically ask for help nearly as much as she could or should. (Is there room for character growth? Yes, there is.) Melody is a likable main character and easily kept me entertained.
While the book is entertaining, where it might trip up readers is in the romance department. The title suggests this is an enemies-to-lovers romantic comedy but the romance actually takes a back seat. This might explain why I felt the initial attraction to be a bit abrupt. She hated him one minute–their first interaction was not very good–and then from across the room she suddenly felt jealous. I didn’t expect that to occur but I guess that’s how feelings can be sometimes, and it might make sense for the enemies-to-lovers trope. I did eventually ease into the attraction, but it also never became a full-blown romance. Those expecting romance might be turned off by this aspect of the book.
One aspect of the attraction that I did appreciate was Melody being conscious of the positions they inhabited in the workplace. With Noah being an intern and part of her team, he is a subordinate and any kind of romantic relationship could be misconstrued as an abuse of power. While the book doesn’t dig deep into this, Melody often ponders this when she’s thinking about Noah. It wasn’t written off as unimportant, and caution isn’t necessarily thrown to the wind because Melody believes love conquers all. (I know…I am being a bit dramatic.) Just because she keeps thinking about the power differential doesn’t mean that the message is that you cannot have both a career and love. It’s that the decisions you make have repercussions so you have to be mindful of what you’re doing, especially as it relates to a potential workplace romance where power dynamics can play a role.
Even though the romance is not central to the story, the book and Melody are compelling enough to read it to the end. To be honest, I forgot about the romance until I was more than half-way through the book. I was immersed in Melody’s story, the story of a woman trying to navigate her way in an industry that doesn’t expect her to succeed. There might be a push for diversity and inclusion but the existing culture–at least at the company she works in–doesn’t take it seriously, refusing to embrace the need for change. (See? Still completely interesting even without the romance in play.) It could even be viewed as an underdog story about how Melody is going to do such a great job that she changes the minds of those she works with that women kick ass, even in the gaming industry. She might be able to do that. It certainly is possible. You’ll have to read to find out.
Initially, I didn’t think the title was fitting because the romance was not central to the story, but I think it’s possible to reframe the title differently. Sure, it was likely meant as a play on the romance but with the romance relegated to the background, the title presents itself as a reflection of what Melody is experiencing in the workplace. She is a new hire and the initial disrespect she receives is not because of a lack of experience or talent, but her colleagues appear to loathe her on first sight for simply being female. But, first impressions aren’t always what they’re cracked out to be so things can get better in the six months she has to develop the game. Loathing at first sight might grow into respect in the workplace.
Melody’s parents and her interactions with them are the highlights of the novel. Her parents are utilized as comedic relief, and they hit the mark every time. It’s certainly possible to see her parents as unpleasant and rude, but I was able to enjoy this largely because I saw Melody’s mom as nearly a reflection of my mom. I love my mom to death but some of the things she says make me want to slam my head against the wall. WHY???? Comments about double chins, the insistence on eating but not too much, and then Melody’s mom constantly hanging up the phone because she is done talking while Melody is left in the middle of a sentence are all things that have made multiple appearances in my conversations with my mom. Like Melody, it’s the understanding that moms/parents generally mean well so you try not to let it get to you–key word is TRY. I have to admit that it is a bit pleasing to see others share my frustration. Misery does love company…even if it’s the company of a fictional character.
There are memes floating around out there that say Asian parents do not typically say, “I love you.” Instead, they ask, “Did you eat today?” It’s a generalization that might not accurately depict all Asian parents, but for me, this rings true. And, sometimes it can get confusing too! My mom would ask if I’d eaten but also remind me to not eat too much. Does this mean she loves me?? Or, does it mean she doesn’t love me?? Which is it??? Harharhar. Melody’s relationship with her parents very much reflects this. I loved it.
Overall, Loathe at First Sight is an enjoyable read. I was so busy enjoying myself I didn’t do much highlighting and reviewing like I usually do. There was something every few pages that would just set me off, and I would laugh despite myself. Although it is categorized as a romantic comedy, the romance is not central to the story. If readers are looking for a way to satisfy their enemies-to-lovers bias, they will be disappointed that Melody’s interactions with enemy Noah are scattered in bits throughout the book as opposed to being the main attraction. And, it never really develops into a romance. While that may be the initial draw, Melody’s story should be more than enough to push readers to finish the book. She’s assertive; she’s hard-working; she’s funny; she has the most entertaining parents. I enjoyed it so much, I purchased a physical copy.