Well Met by Jen DeLuca
All’s faire in love and war for two sworn enemies who indulge in a harmless flirtation in a laugh-out-loud rom-com from debut author Jen DeLuca.
Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him?
The faire is Simon’s family legacy and from the start he makes clear he doesn’t have time for Emily’s lighthearted approach to life, her oddball Shakespeare conspiracy theories, or her endless suggestions for new acts to shake things up. Yet on the faire grounds he becomes a different person, flirting freely with Emily when she’s in her revealing wench’s costume. But is this attraction real, or just part of the characters they’re portraying?
This summer was only ever supposed to be a pit stop on the way to somewhere else for Emily, but soon she can’t seem to shake the fantasy of establishing something more with Simon or a permanent home of her own in Willow Creek.
Well Met makes the role-playing fantasy into a legit romance. The Renaissance Faire is a playground for Elizabethan, Shakespearean, fairy nerds. Adults get to dress up, frolic in the woods, get drunk, buy shit they don’t need, kiss a sexy pirate and have no misgivings about it the next day.
This is one of those books that includes all the things I dream about. Its got one of those out there ideas that seems like the publishers would never go for it. Except they did.
This book is made for the super nerds of literary fields. I love Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Joy Harjo but sometimes I need something happy and wonderful. I know I’m not the only one who gives all the snobs a fuck you to your patronizing piece on formulaic escapist fantasies.
I need two Shakespeare nerds flirting about Shakespeare conspiracy theories in a book shop. I need smooching in book shops, where the hero recites sonnets to the heroine. I need to see a strait-laced nerd unravel his grumpiness and turn into compete mush for the heroine. I need him to use centuries old terms like woo because he is a complete nerdball.
I got all that. And more.
His mouth traveled down my throat, painting Shakespeare’s words onto my collarbone with his tongue.
“For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
Another deep, drugging kiss, and he pulled away, but only far enough to lean his forehead against mine. “Emily.” (265)
The lesson here is that lit nerds are sexy.
However, this book isn’t without its problems, particularly concerning diversity and erasure. Additionally, the characterization fell a little flat. All of which I’d like to talk about.
I love enemies-to-lovers romances. I know there are some problems with that trope. Sometimes authors hammer that trope in so hard they inevitably write the toxic behavior hero. But I’ve got a serious weakness. I acknowledge that. As long as the trope doesn’t go into abusive behavior territory. That’s when I run the fuck out of there. This isn’t that romance.
This book is told through the perspective of Emily. Simon’s character is unraveled through her, giving us a romance prioritizing the heroine and allowing us to see Simon’s unraveling emotions. Simon is a curmudgeonly hero. He’s sorta rude, very uptight, and one of those annoying perfectionists you just want the heroine to rip apart. And she totally does. He’s undone for her.
Sometimes, as readers, we forget that characters are representative of real people. Everyone deals with personal problems they don’t know how to deal with. Simon doesn’t know how to move on after someone he loved dies. He’s not sure who he is after that life-changing event in his life. How does he exist in this world where the old Simon no longer feels like a possibility? He relies on the aspects of himself he doesn’t like and uses those parts of himself to prevent healing.
Simon prefers to put a mask on, keeping his emotions at a distance and turning up the volume on the curmudgeon. He has difficulty with his identity and what he wants the future to look like. He can’t really seem to allow people to help him. He tends to be a very high level of perfectionism I would describe as classic mansplainism, which the heroine cures. Thank. God. But this is what makes real people so complex. There’s that one point in our lives where we just don’t fucking know how to deal with our emotions.
At the Ren Faire, Simon and Emily become a fantasy version of themselves: Emily a wench and Simon a pirate. They let loose all the troubles of their personal lives. Deaths. Bad breakups. Self-hatred. Curmudgeonly bitch. All of it.
Instead of Deluca retelling a Shakespearean play, she uses a line from Romeo and Juliet to tell us a story about identity. She takes the idea that enemies can love each other if they change their names. For Shakespeare, changing one’s identity would mean changing the stars. Deluca says identity is a complex thing born out of the fantasies of human beings and their desires. Emily and Simon struggle with their internal perceptions of themselves. So they reach out to the Ren Faire, where they create other personas. Those personas mesh into their real lives and voilà Romance! Romance! Romance!
I come from the same academic background and I’m of the same age-range as Simon and Emily. Yet something feels off. Emily sounds like a much older woman trying to write a woman in her twenties. Emily comments on swear words…as if that’s rude. She uses the word ‘kiddo’ and phrases like ‘fat chance.’ If I got any indication that she’s an old-fashioned nerd who uses these types of phrases and ideas, it wouldn’t be a problem. With Simon it works, since ‘woo’ is something born out of his love for Shakespearean romance (minus the tragedy). But there’s no characterization or clues that Emily just loves to use terms older generations use. It doesn’t feel accurate or familiar to me, even with all the people I know coming from different places and backgrounds. English academics my age don’t really feel like swearing is a big issue outside of the classroom. It’s a word as normal any other. Some people even use these words to make an argument about what they say about our society. Emily just….doesn’t make sense to me.
It also felt odd that Emily and other women in this book commented about objectification towards men. In the English academic field, objectification is something talked about a lot. Yet, the heroine jokes about objectifying one of the guys she becomes friends with? Sounds strange from someone who probably would have gone to classes that discussed this subject. Ironic jokes like this dismiss worthy criticism, like objectification or racism, and make it sound ridiculous. Even for people outside of this academic field it’s not a good thing to joke about. Would I laugh at a man joking about objectifying women? FUCK. NO.
This book could have shown a lot more diversity than it did. I have high hopes for Jen Deluca. She writes cute nerdy romances and I am a wanton for them. But I need Berkley and Deluca to do better. I need more attentive care to diversity.
“The hell?” I got out of the car and squinted toward the trees. “We’re going in there?” This was exactly how stupid white girls died in horror movies. (67)
This is the only place race is mentioned. And it’s a funny line where the heroine is joking about white girl shit. For the whole novel, I could not tell you about the diversity of the ren faire cast or the different skin colors of characters. Race doesn’t come up other than this quote, which tells me this book takes after small town romance fantasies of an exclusively white world. Small town romances are not the problem. What is a problem is the erasure of BIPOC in those towns. My mom is from a very small town in northern Minnesota. I’ve seen more diversity in her town than I have in small town romances. There are a LOT of racists. But that does not mean romance authors should erase BIPOC to escape the racism of small towns. Racism doesn’t need to be centric to the book’s plot but what I do expect is a world as diverse as the one I live in.
This is especially important since, in recent years, the alt-right have been taking over renaissance faires (https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-alt-right-is-taking-over-renaissance-fairs). White supremacists buy into a fictionalized idea of medieval Europe as an, incorrect and inaccurate, all white world. A common hobby for the white supremacists in these groups is to go to renaissance faires, where they’re allowed to wear Nazi symbols (such as the black sun). This is essentially how the alt-right views medieval europe:
“It’s one of a Europe that was quintessentially white, in which people of color were either not present at all, or such an aberration that they might have well have not been present.”(Cord Whitaker, associate professor of English at Wellesley College)
And they take this idea with them to these Renaissance Faires. Yes, even in white ass Maryland (where Deluca’s book is set).
L.E.H. Light wrote a beautiful article on what it means to be a black woman at Renaissance Faires.
“Some will try to tell you that you are wrong, out of time, out of place. They are wrong. African people have always been travelers, traders, and scholars. The Mediterranean has never been impenetrable and we have always been everywhere. Their ignorance is not the truth.”(L.E.H. Light, https://blacknerdproblems.com/yes-there-were-black-people-in-renaissance-europe/ )
Light’s presence at Ren Faires is a direct assault to the white supremacists. I’m glad she and other BIPOC are there smiling, being their best selves. She exists in that world in a way Jen Deluca never thought about. I really wish people like Light existed in the world Deluca wrote about. But she doesn’t. Black people, indigenous people, latinx people are not even mentioned. The default becomes white, which can be referred to the quote I pulled.
This single photo is more diverse than Well Met by Jen Deluca and that’s a big ass problem.
Deluca makes sure that the heroine and hero develop into people healing from the past, to people asking each other for help, acknowledging their mistakes and their faults.
I’m critical of this book because I want Berkley and Deluca to improve this series. It’s worth a read, even with all the criticisms. It’s breezy, light, with cute nerds abound. This is the type of book I wish had been perfect. I hope Deluca’s Ren Faire romances are things of diverse beauty in the future.