The Friend Zone
Kristen Peterson runs a dog products business from her home, partly because she likes it, partly to spite the mother who wanted her to be a lawyer, and partly because her crippling uterine fibroids have made office schedules a challenge. Josh Copeland, new firefighter in town, keeps getting thrown together with Kristen because has the carpentry skills she needs in order to build the the custom staircases she sells to owners of small dogs, and because Josh and Kristen’s best friends (Brandon and Sloan, respectively) are getting married. Josh and Kristen have great but unwelcome chemistry, for two reasons. First, Josh wants kids, and Kristen’s already scheduled her hysterectomy. Second, Kristen’s in a long-distance relationship. Now what?
This review was so, so difficult to write, and the reason for that was that I wasn’t completely sure what I was reviewing. Is The Friend Zone a contemporary romance? The blurb at Amazon calls it “a hilarious and heartwarming romantic comedy”, and the cover art and title are clearly pitched at readers of The Hating Game or The Kiss Quotient. But if it is a romance novel, then unfortunately, it’s not good at doing what the genre is supposed to do. But maybe it’s women’s fiction – the Amazon bestseller rank matches it against books in “Women’s domestic life fiction” or “Women’s friendship fiction”, not romance. If it’s WF, then while I still have some frustrations, a lot of my genre-specific problems with the novel don’t apply. So read on to get a sense of what you need to be looking for in order for this book to work for you.
I think in any genre, I’d have some issues with Kristen and Josh, which are largely summed up by this quote from Josh’s PoV:
“She was like a unicorn. A mythical creature. An honest, no-drama woman who didn’t bullshit and drank beer and cussed and didn’t care what people thought of her.”
First, any man who thinks honest women and women who swear are creatures of legend isn’t really a hero to me. (This is also inconsistent characterization for Josh, who in other scenes is pretty woke – buying Kristen tampons, for instance, and being on great terms with his six sisters, who I guess lied all the time and never swore?). Second, Kristen is the farthest thing from no-drama I can think of. She has mom drama. She has boyfriend drama. She has career drama. While I don’t have Kristen’s condition and maybe shouldn’t judge, it felt inconsistent for this woman characterized as a no-bullshit unicorn to keep her infertility a Big Secret from Josh until such a time as the plot needed fresh energy. And once he learns her secret, he reacts like a dream, so she becomes increasingly irrational (dramatic, even?) in order to drag things out.
And then… oh, and THEN.
What absolutely derails this book is the second half, and so I simply cannot avoid spoilers. The best way I can describe it without being too specific is that the author sets up secondary characters as a foil to Kristen and Josh, and then brutally, permanently destroys their happiness so that stubborn Kristen can learn her Valuable Lesson. Now, in a romance, this is unforgivable. HEAs belong to everyone, not just to main characters. Good secondary characters deserve good endings – they are not Jesus, sent to suffer for the main characters’ sins. However, I again admit that the book’s marketing is muddled. In a work of women’s fiction, this plot point wouldn’t violate genre conventions, and if we called this a modern saga, it would be practically mandatory to have something traumatic. (There are reasons I read romance, and not women’s fiction or sagas).
Before you decide, though, you should know that that’s not the only second-half problem. This is a book that is, from the very beginning, explicitly about infertility. It is in the blurb and in the marketing. I’m not going to state why what happens in this book, while apparently medically possible, would likely feel like a betrayal of this premise to a reader looking for a book on this topic. However, I suspect you can guess.
After all of this complaining, I should talk about why this book wasn’t a D or an F. Unlike a number of people attempting to write in the ‘quick-witted contemporary’ space, Abby Jimenez is actually funny. Kristen sighs, “At the rate I was going, the only way I’d end up with someone for the rest of my life was if I choked on some queso and died on a first date.” I adored the secondary characters. Kristen’s boyfriend Tyler would be the hero of any other book: he’s a gorgeous multilingual Marine, he’s a gourmand, his family background is money, and his soul has a lot of romance in it. The author does a great job showing how this paragon hero is well-intentioned but ultimately a mismatch for Kristen (and by the way, Kristen, feel free to send him to me!). Sloan and Brandon are delightful, although, Kristen does NOT deserve Sloan (I cannot tell you how fast I’d drop a ‘friend’ who glitter bombed me and toilet papered my house). Brandon and Josh’s banter and relationship chats are delightfully, authentically male. There’s also that one douchey bro on staff who seems totally real, and whose ‘locker-room talk’ is offensive to the better men on station.
After all this, what is my verdict? If you like wrenching, tear-jerker women’s fiction, you may like The Friend Zone – in that genre, it’d probably rate a B grade. If you used the marketing as a guideline and thought you were getting into a contemporary romantic comedy, you’re likely to consider it closer to a C. When all is said and done, Abby Jimenez is a talented author, and she deserves to be marketed in a way that doesn’t alienate half the people who pick up the book. I would certainly try her again, but only if I could figure out what sort of story she was writing.