Mabel Willicker, heroine of Charlotte Stein's latest standalone romance, When Grumpy met Sunshine, has ghostwritten several minor memoirs, but working with Alfie Harding - infamously standoffish footballing legend - would put her career in another league. But when he’s a jerk at their first meeting, Mabel, atypically, sets a boundary and walks out. Alfie, however, decides at that meeting that nobody but Mabel will do. Even as he insists that she take the gig, he resists giving her anything to work with.
As their intimacy gradually develops, grounded in their working-class backgrounds and their similar sense of humor, they find themselves in a fake relationship as the only logical way to explain why Mabel keeps going to Alfie’s house. Concealing the fact that he’s using a ghostwriter is Alfie’s only motivation… right?
I don’t love the book’s title, which reeks of the marketing department, but at least Alfie truly is a grumpy character. This isn’t one of those times when we’re told a character is reticent and standoffish, and yet in every scene they aren’t because gosh, they’re just so different with their love interest! Nope. Alfie’s a dick when we meet him, and he continues to put up walls against Mabel for as long as he can hold out. And while Mabel isn’t full sunshine (good; those types are insufferable), she’s something even less compatible with grumpy: cute. When Alfie comes into Mabel’s apartment full of pastel squishy things, “all of them were surrounding him, like white cells sensing a terrible disease had entered the body.”
Mabel is a perfectly fine heroine. She’s plus-sized and has some issues around that. The internet’s opinions of her dating Alfie don’t help, as she’s caught between the fatphobes and the ones expecting her to bag one for the big girls. I liked her professional competence, as she has done her research into Alfie’s life, approaches the book with an appropriate plan, comes to work with the proper equipment, and cajoles Alfie into answering questions. Watching them come together is so satisfying. We truly understand why Alfie can start to open up to Mabel, and why Mabel is captivated by the Alfie only she gets to know. Alfie isn’t just grumpy - he’s incredibly awkward. Revisiting Alfie’s behavior after learning more about him is often touching, and also frequently hilarious.
Mabel is perfectly fine, but this is Alfie’s book.
I love the description of Alfie’s body. He was a star in Premier League football; it’s completely plausible to give your hero the chiseled, lean form of a Cristiano Ronaldo. I loved that, while fit, he’s described as “massive”:
“He’d been retired for about five years now, but he was still as massive as ever. Heck, if anything, he was even more massive now. His thighs had spread a little bit, and were now roughly the size of carvery roasts. Thick, admittedly delicious looking carvery roasts… Oh, and then there were those meaty shoulders, named Best Of All Time on at least three occasions.”
What is not to love about a hero who sounds more like Adebayo Akinfenwa than Cristiano Ronaldo?
The author also effectively captures Alfie’s working-class Northern speech, and how it intersects with his personality to create a distinctive voice. He absolutely hates talking, and probably also the person he’s talking to. He often communicates via grunt. If he has to speak, he’ll use fuck wherever possible. You could type all the character dialogue in this book on anonymous notecards and you’d always know which one was Alfie.
It’s especially delightful to have that strong character voice carried through into sexy dialogue, where sometimes men we’re told are terse become inexplicably florid. (I originally knew Charlotte Stein as an erotic romance author, so it’s not a surprise to me that she writes great sex. If you’ve read her before, a lot of Alfie and Mabel’s dynamic will seem familiar, but this is by far her best iteration of it.) His blunt and direct speech works so well in sex scenes because it comes across as from the heart. There’s no artifice, no flattery, just genuine appreciation and arousal. It’s hard to pick just one example, but I could honestly hear an actor deliver this line as written:
“I’ve never been ruled on the sly by my dick… Or at least, I’m not usually. In normal circumstances. When I don’t have a half-naked you glued to my body, writhing and moaning and being all wet and oh fucking hell I’m starting to feel it again we have to get up, let’s get up and get showered and get dressed and have breakfast and be normal, come on. Come on, we can do this.”
Man says that to me, we’re not going anywhere.
There are two problems with this book.
I know I said I loved the prose.
But I didn’t love everything about it.
Can you guess what the problem is?
Here’s a hint: I’m doing it to you now.
Here it is in a quote:
“She’d been a fool.
The whole thing would have been a disaster.
A mess of a million scary arguments.
Him, coming up with increasingly horrible insults.
Her, eventually tossing him into the nearest wood chipper.
And she just didn’t have easy access to machinery like that.”
It KILLS me that such great sentence-level prose is rendered almost unreadable by insane formatting. This isn’t something I’ve noticed extensively in Stein’s earlier writing and I’m baffled by it here. Is it an editor? An issue with my e-arc? A trend? When did it become old-fashioned to use paragraphs?
The second problem is plot-related. Nine times out of ten, a fake relationship trope has a Tragic Separation at the ⅘ mark caused by one character realizing they’ve been falling in love for real, accompanied by a Big Mis which means they don’t realise the other protagonist feels the same way. I’ll let you guess what we have here. I also really disliked the fact that the ending has a time skip of a full year, to allow Alfie’s book to go to press for Mabel to read it. They were working together on the draft! Anything he has to say in text, she can see without waiting for the galleys, let alone the book release party! It was really annoying to see the two leads forced into going incommunicado for an entire flipping year to make sure Stein can end her book with a Grand Gesture. Instead of reading as romantic, it reads to me as pointless lost time.
Still. This is a book I got as an ARC the spring before its publication, and I knew by the time I was halfway through that it would make the Best of 2024 list I wouldn’t be writing for another eighteen months. Is it perfect? No. But as Alfie would say, it’s pretty fucking great just the way it is.
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Let’s try it tomorrow and see!
Maybe. I am looking into another way of doing it.