Acting Up is a good, old-fashioned friends-to-lovers romance about two people falling in love after years of friendship and work partnership, against the appealing backdrop of a theater production.
Cath is a stage manager, and while she can manage the heck out of cast and crew, her relationships are far from perfect. She has close friends, but nurses a long-term, aching attraction to her best friend and frequent collaborator Paul. He directs, she manages, and together they run a tight ship. Despite years of friendship, Cath and Paul have never openly contemplated a romantic relationship. Cath is too afraid of losing what she has with Paul, and Paul can tell by Cath’s discomfort that she would never want anything more than friendship with him.
This tension comes to a boil when Susan Vernon is cast as the leading lady in their next production. Susan, a fantastic actress, is also a terrible person, causing discord and frequently angering anyone who does not appease her need for flattery and attention. Susan is unfortunately also known to Paul and Cath, as the three went to college together, Susan taking great pleasure in bullying Cath. Paul knows Susan is trouble, but not the extent of the animosity between her and Cath, and Cath reluctantly agrees to work with Susan.
This antagonistic presence increases Paul’s awareness of Cath, forcing him to think of her in a way he has not in a long time. Cath knows that Paul could never want a relationship with her, she is insecure about her looks, and seems to even think that she’s boring. Paul values Cath, and doesn’t want to make her uncomfortable, but he can’t help but notice her, and needs to know if there’s a chance for them.
Friends-to-lovers is always a fun one, and this book is no exception. Cath is a young professional woman trying to deal with workplace stress, but she has all of the vulnerabilities of a person faced with gorgeous people all day who feels ordinary herself. Cath is very secure in her friendship with Paul, and doesn’t like the idea of the instability a romantic relationship between them could cause. Paul is also insecure, but not in the same way- he doesn’t really think about his looks, but he worries about his place in Cath’s heart. He feels jealous of her easy interactions with other people, and angry at himself for making her upset or causing her discomfort. While they have excellent chemistry, they are also awkward together as they try to expand the boundaries of their relationship. Their repartée is amusing, their shared jokes work as excellent short-hand for the reader, reminding us that these two know each other very well, and have been growing up together for a long time.
That being said, I would have liked some more backstory for Cath and Paul, not just as friends, but in their lives. We do get a bit about Cath and her family, but their characters and personalities are mostly revealed through their relationships to each other. While big exposition-drops are annoying in their own way, as a reader, it would have been interesting to read a little more about the characters’ pasts, and their journey to the point at which we meet them. We get a lot of their internal lives, which is great, but not a lot of their lives in the ten years since college. Initially, I also found the oscillating point of view a little jarring. It changes pretty frequently, and there are also little snippets of emails between Susan and another actress, who isn’t in the book much. I assume this is an homage to Lady Susan, on which this book is very loosely based, but while it was revelatory about Susan as a character, it didn’t make for a worthy addition to a book that could have used a little more oomph. The ending is a tad rushed, but it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book overall.If you miss your theatre days, or long for a bygone production you loved, Acting Up is for you. It’s a comedic take on the friends-to-lovers trope, with a lot of romantic tension.