After reading and enjoying Briar Prescott’s The Happy List, I jumped straight into book two in her Better With You series, The Dating Experiment. It sounded like it would be right up my alley – a grumpy boss and his snarky assistant who start falling in love while chatting online without knowing who they’re chatting with. I love epistolary novels (I suppose chatting on apps and texts is the modern-day equivalent!) and The Shop Around the Corner is one of my favourite films; I enjoyed the author’s writing style and the humour and banter in The Happy List, so I was anticipating a great read when I started The Dating Experiment.
Workaholic lawyer Connor Quinn is the older brother of Gray from The Happy List, and in that book, he came across as something of an arsehole. He brought Gray up after their parents died, and was probably more father than brother (Gray was twelve, Connor was in his early twenties); he seemed demanding and intractable, although he began to thaw somewhat towards the end and there were glimpses of a better relationship for the two brothers on the horizon.
When I started The Dating Experiment, I thought I might be reading a carbon copy of my favourite Lily Morton book, Rule Breaker. The premise and character-types are identical – cantankerous boss and cheeky assistant who secretly pine for each other and communicate through the sort of high-level uber-snark that bewilders everyone around them – but it’s an oft-used trope and the banter is genuinely funny, so I was able to get past the similarities.
At the beginning of the story, Con’s PA Jamie receives a package containing an old mobile phone and a letter from his recently deceased grandfather. He used to play Words With Friends regularly, and in the note, asks Jamie to get in touch with his regular partner Seb to make it clear he didn’t concede their final game – “Tell him fate intervened. Maybe play a game in my honor.”
Jamie does as asked, and finds himself enjoying what proves to be an unexpectedly entertaining conversation with Seb, whose directness and deadpan humour make him smile. Seb and Jamie chat for a while, then Seb challenges Jamie to a game – and before long, chatting with Seb about everything and nothing and playing Words With Friends becomes Jamie’s favourite part of the day and something to be looked forward to. After a few weeks, Jamie starts to realise that there’s something going on that’s more than just a couple of guys idly chatting or playing an online game. Even though they’ve never met, he’s attracted to Seb and is pretty sure the attraction is mutual.
When Jamie suggests to Seb that they should meet, he’s disappointed when the other man turns him down – but Jamie really feels as though they could have something special and, a few days later, decides to go for it. “I dare you to have lunch with me.”
Of course, Jamie is shocked to see his boss walk into the diner and sit in the booth at which he’s arranged to meet Seb. How the hell can Connor Quinn, the most “aggressively normal” – nay boring – man on the planet possibly be the warm, funny guy he’s been getting to know over the last few weeks?
The set-up is my catnip, and I really liked reading Connor and Jamie’s text exchanges; I loved watching them getting to know each other as the people they really are rather than their office personas, and enjoyed the way the author reveals so much about them through these conversations, which are real and funny and warm – and I was totally Here For It. After they discover the truth (Sebastian is Con’s middle name, btw), their relationship becomes somewhat strained, but mostly as the result of the sheer overload of the sexual tension thrumming between them. As any romance reader will know, that amount of UST isn’t going to stay “U” for very long; an explosive sexual encounter puts paid to any thoughts they might have had of things going back to the way they were, and Jamie decides to head off the ‘it was a mistake and we can’t do this again’ speech from Con by suggesting the titular dating experiment. They won’t date; instead they’ll be two guys who hang out and do date-like stuff, but they won’t call it anything ‘official’ and will just go with the flow.
Okay, so I couldn’t honestly see how that was all that much different to actually dating, but I was enjoying the book so much, I went with it. But then author goes on to tell us how Con and Jamie spend the next few weeks hanging out, going on not-dates, having lots of hot sex and spending whole nights together; however we get to see very little of it – we’re told – and that was disappointing.
Still, Con and Jamie have terrific chemistry and I really liked them as a couple; Jamie makes Con feel truly seen for probably the first time in his life and makes him want to come out of his protective shell a little, and Con encourages Jamie to pursue his own dreams. The only real conflict in the story comes near the end when an old flame of Con’s appears to cause a bit of mischief that needn’t have been mischief at all – I could have smacked Con at that point. I also had problems with the ending; I’m not a fan of the public Grand Gesture, and even though I know Con was trying to be more spontaneous/less boring, it still felt completely out of character.
A couple of other niggles. Jamie’s two friends Max and Anders (who star in books three and four in the series) don’t have very distinctive voices; not only do they sound like each other, they sound like Jamie, which made the few scenes in which they all appear a bit… samey. Also, I didn’t really understand the author’s decision to have practically the entire first half of the book in Jamie’s PoV. Con’s voice IS distinctive, so much so that it’s obvious he’s also Seb from the minute he and Jamie start messaging, so having some chapters from Con earlier wouldn’t have spoiled anything.
In the end though, I’m putting The Dating Experiment in the ‘win’ column, because more about it worked for me than didn’t, and honestly, most of the issues I’ve mentioned didn’t really impact on my enjoyment while I was reading; they just struck me afterwards! If you’re in the market for a sexy, funny low-angst read, you could do worse than check this one out.
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