Pretending is a contemporary novel about a young woman sick of heartbreak and fear, who turns to another identity, a fake version of herself, to get by in the app-driven dating world. While it has a strong hook and a sympathetic main character, the story is so loosely held together that it was a drag to get through. Despite that, it is a decent read if you can get invested, though I would not recommend it to anyone triggered by descriptions of sexual assault.
April has been hit hard by the dating world – she keeps meeting and hating men, her patience dwindling. She doesn’t just dislike most men, she hates them. She hates how they are thoughtless, and hurtful, how they are passive-aggressive and mean, how they hurt women without consequences. This worldview is somewhat fostered by her job at a non-profit that deals with relationship violence, where she reads emails sent to her by survivors every day. This hits her particularly hard, because she is a survivor, too. It’s what drew her to the work.
So when April is once again frustrated and hurt by a man, she does the obvious (!) thing: opens a fake dating profile under a false name. April knows that men don’t want the heavy stuff, the neediness and the insecurity, they want Gretel. Gretel listens more than she talks, she thinks all his jokes are funny, Gretel looks perfect, Gretel is laid back. Gretel is relaxed, she doesn’t have PTSD. Gretel is everything men want, no pressure, no leading questions, no labels. This is how April can get her revenge on the men of the world – she can be the perfect woman, she can make them love her, and she can break their hearts. But then, April meets her mark – Joshua – who turns out to actually be kind of okay. April knows she’s unlovable, but Joshua likes Gretel. And, despite herself, April finds herself starting to like Joshua, too.
April is a winning protagonist, and while her actions are sometimes impossible to fathom, they feel honest to the character. Her friendships ring true, and her best friend/flatmate in particular is a really great secondary character. April’s development throughout the book is earned, and she comes to milestones in a realistic way. Someone loving her doesn’t solve all her problems, and she doesn’t fix herself with a motivational poster. She is a nuanced survivor of trauma who has to come to terms with herself, and that is really the best part of the book. I also liked that the ending was realistic; the story’s conclusion feels true to April’s journey.
The difficult subject matter of sexual assault is described in visceral, unflinching detail, which really conveys the seriousness of the heroine’s experiences. However, the book is marketed as a light-hearted rom-com-stroke-women’s fiction title (and Amazon categorises it as “Humorous Dark Comedy”), wherein there is a kooky deception, the ruse is uncovered, and there is a happily ever after. This isn’t that book – the fraud April undertakes is driven by extreme emotional distress and a feeling of ultimate rejection, by society, by men, and even by herself. While Pretending is well-written for the most part, this is not the light-hearted romance promised by the blurb.
While the premise seemed exciting, I found the execution to be a bit lacking. The thing that really brings my rating down is the way the book is structured; it jumps around in a truly strange way. There are little interludes where April is talking to the reader about her thoughts and feelings, and some chapters that are just text-threads of messages and emails. Then, there are the more traditional chapters of prose and dialogue. While in some books, this less traditional format might work, here, it made the novel seem scrambled. The book was also a bit longer than one might normally expect for the genre, and it felt bloated in some places.
Pretending’s winning protagonist and realistic resolution save it from a D rating, but those things can’t make up for its serious structural issues.