Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute
In Talia Hibbert’s Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute, we get a relatable, friends-to-enemies-back-to-friends-to-maybe-more young adult story that, while well written, somewhat missed the mark for me. Granted, I had high expectations given the buzz Hibbert has received for her contemporary romance titles.
Celine Bangura may be an outsider, but she definitely owns it. She knows who she is and what she wants, and she’s on a straight-line path to accomplish her goals. She’s going to finish her final year at school with top marks, be admitted to Cambridge where she will study law, and then become England’s greatest corporate lawyer. She certainly isn’t going to let perfect, popular, former best-friend Bradley Graeme derail her. After Brad ditched her to be a part of the in-crowd, she added defeating him in all ways possible to the top of her goals list.
Bradley Graeme is popular and successful at football (soccer in the US) and gets top marks, but most people don’t know that coping with his OCD is a constant challenge. Like Celine, he plans on attending university to study law so that he can make his family proud, albeit somewhere less lofty than Oxford or Cambridge. He keeps his dream of writing a novel a secret from everyone, convinced that he doesn’t have the talent to ever make it as a professional author. And while he knows that he had hurt Celine in the past, he doesn’t understand her determination to see him as her greatest enemy. All he did was explore new interests and try to make some new friends, but she can’t seem to get over it.
When Celine gets the opportunity to attend a special program sponsored by her idol, civil rights attorney Katharine Breakspeare, she’s thrilled. Not only will participating in the prestigious Breakspeare Enrichment Program (BEP) provide stellar content for her uni application, but she could win a full-ride scholarship. Brad has no interest in the program’s outdoor setting and wilderness challenges, but he would love to win a scholarship that would allow him to secure single-accommodations when he goes to university. It certainly would help his mental health if he doesn’t have to share living space with other people.
When they are both accepted to the BEP, Celine and Brad find it impossible to ignore each other. They are paired together during their first challenge, and it doesn’t take long for all of their past hurts to bubble to the surface. At long last, Celine is able to confront Brad over his betrayal of not only their friendship but of her personally. For his part, Brad expresses his frustrations over Celine’s unwillingness to accept his apologies or explanations. With all of their grievances out in the open, the two are able to move into a tentative friendship. And it doesn’t take long for the strength of that friendship to morph into stronger, romantic feelings.
But Celine is reluctant to commit herself fully to a relationship with Brad because she can’t bear the thought of losing him again, something she is convinced will happen when they must separate to attend their individual universities. Too, she begins to question all of her goals and decisions, fearful that she has based her entire life and future on obtaining some sort of revenge against the father who abandoned her for a new family. Brad begins to second guess his decision to go to study law but fears disappointing his parents by telling them that he wants to study English instead. The two turn to each other for support and understanding, but is it enough to remain just friends?
Talia Hibbert has a flair for creating well-rounded characters who come complete with relatable flaws. Their level of self-awareness is refreshing, and the self-deprecating humor, especially on Bradley’s part, is laugh-out-loud funny. The dialogue between Celine and Brad is realistic and honest, and I did like how they support each other as they navigate their uncertain futures. I don’t have personal experience with OCD, but Hibbert has done an excellent job presenting the challenges and solutions I can only imagine would come with this mental illness.
But I did have a few problems with this book. First of all, it is mentioned more than once that Bradley is bisexual. However, this is never addressed, nor is it a plot point or important to his character in any way. I had to wonder why this was included other than for the sake of representation.
Too, as a main character, Celine is very shrill and mean, especially at the beginning of the story. She clearly has reasons to resent Bradley, and we do learn more about what caused the break in their close friendship. However, she is so nasty to him that you had to wonder why he would ever warm to her again. Bradley is a much more likable character in every way.
My last quibble is that the book’s main premise ends up being a non-factor. The wilderness survival competition is never fleshed out, serving only as a vague background for some relationship development. Indeed, once they reconcile near the book’s half-way mark, any sense of competition between Celine and Brad comes to an end and the BEP becomes not much more than an afterthought.
In the end, Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute is well written and the characters are quirky and real. While I haven’t read any of Hibbert’s other books, I’m definitely willing to check them out despite being a bit disappointed in this one.