Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-268554-4
Contemporary Romance, 2018
The best way I can describe Alyssa Cole’s debut with Avon is that A Princess in Theory is like those young adult stories featuring ladies who end up being queens, only with more explicit descriptions of rubbing of genitalia once things get frisky. I personally feel that there is a bit of a dissonance between the PG-rated tone of the bulk of the story and the borderline PG-13/R-rated steamier moments, but I suppose those scenes are for the benefit of those little girls reading this story, who want to feel more adult and daring for having graduated from Meg Cabot to this.
It still amuses me, long after I’ve finished reading it, just how calculated the whole fantasy feels. I don’t know if it’s intentional on the author’s part or not, but if clichés are bricks, then the author have used a huge truckload of them to make an admittedly beautifully constructed house.
We can’t have a heroine who outright dreams of being rescued by a prince these days, of course, because what will people say. So Naledi Smith is theoretically independent and feisty – an orphan, she has been juggling school and part time work since she was thirteen, and all her hard work pays off when she is at the brink of becoming a real epidemiologist. What a brave girl, facing down the chauvinists and misogynists in the STEM world – and as someone from that world, let me say that yes, there are some real pieces of work, and if the author’s portrayal of academia seems stereotypical, it’s because there is a some element of truth to those stereotypes. Anyway, let’s applaud that darling!
But, ah, it’s not really a romantic rescue fantasy if the heroine is genuinely sassy and feisty, so the author sneakily uses Naledi’s caring nature to make sure that she is also pushed around by chauvinist colleagues and melodramatic – male, of course – losers into becoming overworked while being taken by granted even by her well-meaning friends. That way, when Prince Thabiso of Thesolo – don’t ask me what happened to Theduo and Thetrio – shows up to wave a world of wealth and opportunities for Naledi to play the magnanimous woman who will save the world from plagues – thanks to all the access to resources and collaborators afforded by Thabiso – we can still sigh dreamily without feeling like a traitor to the feminist cause. And, of course, despite the fact that she doesn’t have to wait tables and worry about money ever again, the author will take great pains to assure us that, not to worry, Naledi remains the feisty, caring woman she is all along. This is not a rescue fantasy, how dare you, it’s a… romance with benefits. That’s all.
I have to admit, though, getting to that happy ending is a lot of fun, even if, upon closer scrutiny, things may not always hold up. For example, Naledi is initially plagued by rude and sanctimonious emails informing her that she needs to submit ID to prove that she’s the preordained bride of the Prince of Thesolo, and our heroine understandably treats what seems like spam mail from someone claiming to be from the African continent like one would treat those emails from Nigeria. But the sender of these emails also advises Thesolo, no, Thabiso – sheesh, what’s with all the similar-sounding names – on how to deal with a woman, and I’m not sure how to reconcile that tone-deaf sender of those rude emails with that person who is apparently attuned to what happens in the heart. Also, Thabiso sometimes comes off as unbelievably naïve for someone who is supposedly well-versed in politics due to his concern for his people. Don’t worry, people, he’s not an icky nerd – he’s also a playboy, so all is well in the world and we can safely lust after him.
Thabiso decides to seek out Naledi himself, but is mistaken by her for “Jamal”, the new staff at the place where she works, and he plays along. This is a pretty familiar plot development, and one that is completely undermined by the fact that our hero isn’t a fish out of water as he is a wealthy fish who can afford to buy a pond of any size if the one he finds himself in isn’t to his liking. Sure, he and Naledi get along well, and there is an aww-teens-in-love-are-so-cute chemistry between them… at least until they start rubbing one another down there and I’m like, “Good lord, you kids, I don’t need to see that! Put that away!” But all in all, I can’t really get into this story because I know things will never become really bumpy for him or her. After all, he’ll just call his PA and buy nice stuff and make all the problems go away.
Also, I feel that the story begins to meander once these two head back to Thesolo. From that point, I’m treated to what seems like a cultural tour of Thesolo coupled to what seems like the setting up for future books, topped off by some mild suspense that gets resolved in a rushed and hence unsatisfying manner.
All things considered, A Princess in Theory is a painless, pleasant read that occasionally makes me smile. Still, I have never truly felt emotionally invested in the characters’ arcs or problems as nothing in here feels genuine or real. A jaded part of me will always feel that this is one very manufactured story designed to appeal to a younger audience, only to have sex scenes slapped in here and there once it gets picked up by Avon for a grown-up romance line.