Here’s a fun one for us! We just happened to have several fake relationship ARCs, so this month we’re talking about the fake relationship trope.
Bottom line: Do you like the fake relationship trope?
Erin: Even though I often think the reason the protagonists think they need a fake relationship is absolutely ridiculous, there is honestly nothing better than the angst associated with catching feelings when you weren’t supposed to because all the affection is just for show, right?
Holly: Yes. Full stop. (To refresh my memory, I scrolled through all the books we’d tagged as “fake relationship” and almost every time I got to one I’d reviewed, I’d be like, “OH YEAH! That book was great!!!!!!”)
Ingrid: For some reason, it’s a special kind of ridiculous that always hits the spot.
What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a fake relationship trope?
Erin: I like fake relationship as an all-encompassing term for fake dating, fake engagement, fake marriage, and any other iteration of partners who agree to pretend to have a romantic relationship because of Reasons.
I would also argue that a true representation of the trope is a throughline, but an “I need a fake date” that sort of spirals into more works, too.
Holly: I agree with what Erin says, with the addendum that both parties in the fake relationship must know that the relationship is not real (at least at the outset) and are in general agreement about the terms of the relationship. There are also usually some boundaries about when and where the relationship is performed—and those boundaries inevitably get crossed, which is always a delightful moment.
Ingrid: It pretty much has to go from “it’s just harmless and temporary” to “oh no–have I caught feelings?” to “the other person clearly does not feel the same way” to “oh dear, what silly numpkins we are for not realizing we’ve been in love literally this ENTIRE TIME”.
What do you think is fun about the trope?
Erin: Nothing delights me more than “OMG I’m catching feelings, and that’s against the rules, and what am I going to doooooooo?”
It’s also a great format for a legitimately great comedy OR for a really angsty read (or maybe both?!), so it’s got depth.
Holly: The creativity! When we sum up the plots of books, we usually say, “They’re in a fake relationship for REASONS,” but the reasons vary so widely. What will those authors think of next??!? (I can’t wait.)
Ingrid: There are just so many ways to stoke the flames in these books because they have to pretend to do all the things we do when we’re actually falling in love with someone. So many opportunities to crank up the heat AND the tension, and it’s super fun.
What do you find problematic about the trope?
Erin: Unless the protagonists are looking at exploiting a legal loophole (I’m thinking of With You Forever by Chloe Liese in which a legal marriage gained access to a trust), it often relies on lying, which is not something I would endorse. But that’s kind of the point of the trope, too. They have to figure out that their initial choice maybe wasn’t the best or healthiest one, even if the ultimate outcome was good.
Also most of the time authors don’t seem to have a great understanding of how green card marriages work, but suspension of disbelief, okay. The one author I think handled the green card marriage story well was Mariana Zapata in The Wall of Winnipeg and Me, but the rest I’ve read are, uh, fantastical.
Holly: But here’s the thing: lying to whom and for what purpose? For example, in Hate Crush by Angelina M. Lopez and Act Like It by Lucy Parker, the protagonists are public figures who are set up by their managers to have public fake relationships specifically for media purposes. Is lying to the tabloids any better or worse than lying to the government to get health insurance or gain custody of some kids? (see: Learned Reactions or Best Fake Fiancée) Is it a bad thing to pretend to be engaged to someone you trust so that predatory creep will leave you alone? (see: The Brightest Star in Paris) Or is it even that terrible to lie to your toxic family and bring home a date so they just get off your back about not being married yet? (ok, so maybe the parents in Her Pretend Christmas Date aren’t toxic, but you get the idea)
Basically, what I’m saying is: Erin, whatever, lying isn’t that terrible. What was the question again?
Erin: Ugh, fine. But I was thinking of situations like The Wedding Crasher by Mia Sosa, in which Dean uses the relationship to get a leg up at work while Solange doesn’t directly address her family’s biases, or Sailor Proof by Annabeth Albert, in which Derrick is jealous and angry and wants to get back at his ex, or Muffin Top by Avery Flynn, in which Lucy’s self-esteem can’t handle her trip back home. Basically any story in which the protagonists are using the relationship to avoid addressing whatever problems they’re dealing with in a healthy and honest way. (Which includes Her Pretend Christmas Date, which I absolutely loved. Hello glasses and sweater vests!) It’s not that they don’t have a reason to do it, it’s that the reason is eek. A person’s boss should not be pressuring a person to be in a relationship, even if it’s fake. They might not even be caught out in their lies (although they often are), but putting a cute spin on an unhealthy starting point, while fun and even entirely understandable, is still at its root unhealthy.
Besides, the question is general, and I stand by my answer. Even though your argument is very good, and dynamic characters do have to start somewhere. But I challenge you to identify something problematic!
Holly: Usually I am an expert at teasing out problematic content, but I honestly can’t think of anything. Perfect trope is perfect.
Ingrid: Uhm…so like, lying erodes trust and all that, and people always say that a relationship is built on trust so maybe that. I don’t find a problem with it, this trope tends to be pretty wholesome. Basically what you guys said just without all the evidence.
Do you think people actually have fake relationships?
Holly: If you look at the whole list of reasons I gave above where it would be perfectly legitimate to lie about being in a relationship, then it becomes obvious that there’s no way that this doesn’t happen in real life.
Erin: I mean, a fake date I could see. And a marriage of convenience that is for something like a green card or insurance coverage and not a ridiculous caveat in a will. But sometimes the lengths to which these characters seem to feel they need to go seems bananas.
But I would definitely be game for a fake relationship, so there’s that.
Ingrid: No, that’s ridiculous. Who does that? That’s why it’s fun in books.
Why is this such a popular trope?
Holly: It’s both specific and extremely versatile. By that I mean that it’s specific in its beats: people have a performative relationship, the performance bleeds into the private space, feelings ensue, one or both parties wonder if it’s real. But within those beats, there’s so much space for widely different ways for the story to unfold, depending on how and to what extent the different beats are emphasized.
Erin: Holly’s spot on. I think I would add that it includes a very natural tension that doesn’t need any additional manufacturing. If a story is done well, the question that should have a good, clear answer all the way until the end is “Why can’t they be together right now?” (Thanks, Sarah MacLean!) A fake relationship starts with a clear problem and characters who have made a clear agreement, which, when the agreement falls apart, flows into new tension because one or both characters are failing to adhere to the initial agreement, having caught feelings.
Ingrid: Holly hit the nail on the head, yet again.
What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?
Erin: Look, it’s Boyfriend Material. Not necessarily because of the trope (though the trope is absolute fake relationship perfection), but because it’s possibly the most hilarious book I’ve ever read in my life.
Another one that’s overall light-hearted and has a little fun with the trope is Boyfriend by Sarina Bowen. A college hockey player advertises being available as a perfect fake boyfriend every Thanksgiving so he doesn’t have to deal with family drama at home and he gets to have a fun experience. The woman who’s had a crush on him since she first served him at the local diner decides to take advantage of the opportunity he’s presented. Naturally, they keep swapping because they become friends…until their feelings turn more than friendly.
Holly: Act Like It by Lucy Parker is a phenomenal example of the fake relationship trope because both protagonists are stage actors who start dating as a PR stunt for the show they’re both in. The lines between what’s real and what’s pretend get real blurry real fast and it’s delicious.
Since I’m contractually obligated to always recommend a historical romance when we talk tropes, Some Like it Scandalous by Maya Rodale is fun one! It’s one of those “let’s have a fake relationship to avoid having a real relationship” setups that is only found in romance novels.
And finally, D’Vaughn and Kris Plan a Wedding by Chencia C. Higgins introduces a fun twist: fake relationship by way of reality television! (My full review is dropping tomorrow, so I’ll save all my gushing for why this book is so great til then.)
Ingrid: Real Fake Love by Pippa Grant stood out to me–first of all, they really are an unlikely couple (Pro baseball player and a secretly famous romance writer who’s been engaged an obscene number of times). Second of all, I loved that it ends in a way that works for both of them–they’re such an unlikely pair that they ended up having to create their own version of happily ever after, and it just works. But basically, she needs help not falling in love with everyone, and he needs help learning how to actually commit to someone, so they have a fake relationship and live together in exchange for lessons. It’s nutty and fun, and really hits the spot!
Books we mentioned in our discussion: