Desert Isle Keeper
Crushing on You
Ever since I finished Crushing On You, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Romance generally doesn’t challenge me to read a messy heroine who behaves badly, so I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on Crushing’s troubled heroine, Anna Tang.
Anna, an aspiring music journalist, meets Ian Gao when they are airplane seatmates on the way to the wedding of a mutual friend. Their wedding hookup is unfortunately interrupted by a phone call from Ian’s mom, and Anna irately determines to put him out of her mind. But a chance encounter at the neighborhood climbing gym and a job opportunity for Anna at Ian’s company push the two back together, and soon they’re dating – until the fight of all fights blows them apart.
Anna is an extremely difficult heroine. I don’t mean that she’s ineffectively written; she’s just realistically a person who would be, well, extremely difficult to know. Professionally, she’s credibly constructed. While working as an admin to pay the bills, she lives for music and wants to be a music journalist, and I completely believed she’d be good at it; a sample of her writing about music sounds legitimately like it belongs in an online publication. It’s Anna’s personal life, and her behaviors in relationships, which are so problematic. She has a no-dating-Asians rule, which actually means an ‘I have unresolved childhood issues about my abusive Asian dad and stepdad and Asian extended families and have decided use this rule instead of seeing people I meet as individuals’ (By the way, I’ve seen ‘Asian heroine who won’t date Asian boys but oops, the hero is Asian’ used more and more often as a plot device. The way it’s handled here is better than most because Anna has real trauma around her racial and cultural background, but it’s still a trope I’m not comfortable with).
Furthermore, Anna talks a great game about wanting to be independent, but lives with her ex because his family owns the building and he charges her a pittance in rent. While living there, she starts seeing and sleeping with Ian while knowing full well that her ex is letting her stay because he’s hoping to get back together with her. And from him, she moves right in with Ian. She demands that Ian cancel his parents’ traditional Thanksgiving visit, where they stay at his apartment, because she’s so convinced they won’t like her. Did I mention that his mom is having chemo?
But difficult people exist, and deserve stories and a chance at happiness, as well as everyone else. Anna survived trauma, but that trauma haunts her and affects her ability to see people and her own choices clearly. She has to prioritize survival because she lacks the safety net most people take for granted. (This stands out strikingly in a genre where women who have suffered often fortuitously inherit ranches, bakeries, or entire NFL teams.)
Plus, the author acknowledges that Anna has significant issues, and needs to grow and change. Anna and Ian separate for a sequence that is not only longer than the typical romance novel Separation Phase, but also comes much earlier in the book. This gives Anna time to make a deeper, more credible examination of her life and to reform it. I wish Anna had been given even more changes, especially some form of therapy, but I felt the change happening.
What about Ian? He’s a ripped, hot, affluent computer programmer and passionate rock climber who is utterly dedicated to his family (witness interrupting a hookup to take care of his mother). His biggest flaw is being standoffish in the workplace. He’s actually an engaging hero, but beside Anna, there’s less to say about him. He changes, too, but it’s more a case of figuring out a way to be happier than fixing severe issues.
Chapters are written in the first person, alternating between Anna and Ian. This is the author’s first book, and it’s self-published, which leads to occasionally stilted prose. The sex scenes, however, are hot and well-written, and kudos to the author for being the first romance writer I’ve read to include Plan B emergency contraception. The writing smooths out as the book proceeds, both in terms of plot (the beginning is slow) and prose. I could not predict what would happen next, because Anna and Ian were moving through life like real people, not like characters following a relationship-based plot arc. By the last few chapters, I was devouring the story and snapping at anybody in my vicinity who wanted to divert my attention from the book.
The author presents a painfully honest reckoning with Chinese-ness and the social pressures the characters are subjected to by those networks. The dialogue, when Anna and Ian fight, is raw. Anna scoffs,
“You are literally the Chinese-American dream… you’re a fucking caricature. Ivy League grad, high salary, filial piety. Did you ever, I dunno, have a dream of your own? You literally just became the person that your parents wanted you to be, that all of our culture wanted you to be.”
“So your life is somehow more glamorous? You must feel so fucking self-righteous, working shit jobs, living with your ex, not giving a damn about anyone but youself but still needing people to take care of you. Is that what you call passion? Or independence?”
The dialogue bursts with the viciousness of a real-life fight, colored with the blows only an OwnVoices author would know to have her characters strike. It’s painful in a way romance seldom is – but also completely gripping.
It’s hard to review something I think will polarize people. Ultimately, the book is just too interesting for me to give it less than an A-. It doesn’t completely succeed at all points, especially because the beginning takes a while to get going. With several decades and thousands of romance titles under my reading belt, it takes a lot for me to find a book in this genre completely unique. If you’re looking for a book that’s fresh but also unapologetically challenging, Crushing On You is well worth a read.