Short and sweet is the perfect description of Playing House. Charming and humorous, this novel will be a complete delight for contemporary romance fans.
Oliver Huang is going through a serious slump. He’s lost his job, which means he can’t afford an apartment and is forced to live with his far more successful younger brother. His mother implies he’s as shiftless as his father – who deserted them years ago – and family gatherings on Sunday afternoons seem to be held for the sole purpose of having everyone tell him “that his lack of ambition is a disappointment.” He can barely remember the last time he went on a date but he does remember that she dumped him. When he sees casual acquaintance Fay Liu on the historic Mount Morris home tour and winds up spending the afternoon playing her significant other, it’s the best thing that’s happened to him in a long time.
Fay can’t remember the last time she had fun. She’s been all work and no play since the very successful launch of her business and the subsequent crash and burn of her marriage. When she attracts a particularly pushy admirer while on the Mount Morris home tour, she exhausts all her usual arsenal of predatory pest deterrents and is desperately seeking help when she spots Oliver, who is willing to play her boyfriend in order to discourage her determined suitor. She’s known Oliver for years since they are both urban planners and they work in “such a small community”, but this is the first time Fay has spent real one on one time with him. She’s happy to get to know him better and maybe move their relationship from confrère to friend. But Oliver makes architectural details sound like foreplay and his good looks and gentlemanly demeanor work like an aphrodisiac on her too long denied libido; she laughs easily around him and feels genuinely happy and hopeful for the first time in a long time. By the end of the afternoon she’s moved him from potential friend to potential friend-with-benefits. When he fails to ask for her number when the tour is done, she gets his from a buddy and texts him, arranging to meet up again.
Neither mentions the word date as they walk through Marcus Garvey Park and climb the stone staircase outside Mount Morris Fire Watchtower while playing “a game of building-nerd-I-spy where they tried to identify landmarks and streets.” But they both wonder if that’s what this is.
When they’re done with the game at the watchtower they go inside a couple of open houses to get a closer look at the interior of the local architecture. Then meet again the next day to go through another open house. For some people, exploring homes for sale is a slog but for these two discovering hidden period details in homes and checking out the traffic patterns in neighborhoods is sheer bliss. They bond over crown molding and transom windows and delight in sharing the joy of finding the hidden potential in fixer uppers.
But with their own lives in need of some major renovations, neither is sure this is the right time to take their relationship forward.
Playing House is an amusing, character-driven romance between two lovely people who are better together than apart. Oliver’s kind, calm nature makes a perfect foil for Fay’s driven, forthright personality, and their shared career and culture make for strong similarities between them that adds depth to their physical attraction. The story spends most of its page space on personal growth, and the emotional aspect of the relationship. Fay makes it clear from almost the very beginning that she doesn’t want “a giggle and a cuddle. I don’t need a fling. . . I want something serious with someone serious.” I loved that this was an adult relationship with two people who were done with playing the field and were looking for something more.
That said, the tale could have used a bit more sensuality. In the single sex scene there is so much double checking that this is what they both want that as a result the entire process came across as mundane. Fortunately, the author redeems it with plenty of post-coital glow and tenderness. I loved how Oliver spent the time Faye slept off their lovemaking doing something special for her. He expresses concern that it’s “a sign that he already cared too much” but for me it showed what a fantastic, romantic, thoughtful guy he is.
We know from the start that the obstacle to their relationship will be work related since Oliver has applied for a job at the firm that Fay owns and is very interested in the position. Fay has delegated the hiring process for that job to one of her partners and is blissfully unaware Oliver is a candidate for the position. He’s equally unaware that she doesn’t know, and stays silent only because he can’t figure out how to bring the issue up during their outings. When she does learn about it from her business partner, it causes tension between them. I liked that the author uses that conflict to both move the relationship forward and have a character growth moment for Oliver. Both Fay and Oliver are still working out who they are after the significant recent life changes they’ve been through and it makes sense that each new hurdle they face will have them learning something new about themselves as well as each other.
Another reason the issue between them is work-related is that very nearly every aspect of their lives is work-related. They both absolutely love being urban planners and “geeking out over architectural details is Oliver and Fay’s shared love language”, and for both of them, their sense of self-worth very tied to their careers. For Oliver, a lot of that comes from his own father’s inability to hold down a job. While Oliver is currently doing freelance work and making an adequate living at it, he can’t see anything but corporate employment as success. His mother calling him “shiftless” the minute he loses his job confirms the idea that success lies in being employed by a lucrative firm. Fay loves her work and the success of her small company and can’t imagine a world where that isn’t important to her, but she often feels self-conscious because people tell her she is too driven and achievement oriented. She’s developed the perception that this is unfeminine and will result in her never having a strong romantic relationship. Both of them need to change their mindset regarding these concerns before they are able to move forward with their relationship.
Playing House doesn’t have an HEA but it has a lovely HFN which left me very hopeful for the couple’s future. The humor is perfectly done, making the story comical rather than farcical and the author does a lovely job of capturing the hopeful emotions that course through us as we start a new, meaningful relationship. This is a perfect read for those who enjoy lighthearted contemporary romances.