If you’re looking for a cute, contemporary gay romance to snuggle up with then Kris Ripper’s Book Boyfriend is a good place to start. Behind it’s rom-com trappings, it has hidden depths and a beautifully flawed lead character in PK.
Preston ‘PK’ Harrington is an editorial assistant (and wannabe author) working at a book publisher in Manhattan who, thanks to his rich parents, has the rarest of things in the city, a spare bedroom. When his best friend Art moves in after splitting up with his boyfriend, PK is over the moon. You see, PK is in love with Art and has been since they shared one drunken kiss back in college. But PK isn’t the most emotionally literate person in the room and instead of telling Art how he feels, he channels his emotions into his writing, pouring all his wishes into a fictionalized version of himself and Art. Things start to get out of hand when his work decides to publish his thinly-veiled manuscript under a pseudonym and it becomes a literary hit. When Art declares the book’s protagonist to be the perfect “book boyfriend”, PK starts to think maybe this is his chance.
Author Kris Ripper does a terrific job of balancing the heightened rom-com framework with some weightier emotional stakes. Yes, the set up is farfetched. Yes, PK is a rich kid living in Manhattan, privileged enough to be slumming it in publishing, which runs the risk of making him instantly unlikable. But once you let yourself settle into the world, the complexity starts to push through. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill romance fiction, it has more guts to it than that.
PK is an adorable mess. He’s sloppy, well-meaning and sweet. He freezes when he doesn’t know what to do. He tries to avoid awkward situations at every turn, only to make things even worse. His default emotional safe place is making pasta. He is a very relatable lead character. Meanwhile Art is more emotionally aware, more flamboyant, more at ease with who they are, but that assuredness comes from a background of struggle. Their friendship makes a lot of sense and their genuine affection reads very true, but is it enough to blossom into a romance, or will the revelation of PK’s feelings sour something so sweet?
It took a while for me to realize that none of the main characters in Book Boyfriend are particularly ‘straight acting’. These characters are queer to the core. Even some of the straight characters are queerer than the gays. When my imagination started ‘casting’ the characters, none of them were the buff Adonises of romance fiction covers, instead they were quirky kids with a variety of body types and mannerisms. They feel like people I know, not like Hollywood clichés.
One of the things I like most about Book Boyfriend is how messy it is. Situations don’t always have clean endings, even the book’s resolution takes its time despite the fact that you suspect things will all work out in the end (this is a romance novel after all). Ripper (who uses ze/zir pronouns), takes time to let the characters work through their emotions in fits and starts. When Art decides to change pronouns from he/him to they/them it feels like a natural progression and takes the other characters time to get used to the change. The dramatic third act complication neatly enhances their friendship, but keeps you wondering if it will ‘friend-zone’ them completely.
Ripper also takes the time to work through the thorny issues of ‘grand romantic gestures’ and deconstructs some romance fiction tropes along the way. There is a lot of subtle discussion of consent and honesty, as well as some unexpected characters finding ways to live their truths that don’t always follow the popular narratives.
The New York publishing setting and rom-com shenanigans reminded me a lot of TV’s Younger, if Liza had been secretly in love with Maggie (which we all know she should have been) instead of chasing after Josh and Charles. And similarly Ripper has filled the book with over-the-top characters (one character is always seen with their bird, while another behaves like a Noël Coward impersonator), but these flourishes add flavour rather than pulling you out of the story.
Book Boyfriend is an easy, fun read that’ll bring a smile to your face and maybe a tear to your eye along the way. One for fans of books like Red, White and Royal Blue. If you’re a romantic at heart you’ll find a lot to love here.
By Chad Armstrong
Book Boyfriend goes on sale on April 26 from Carina Press. Support your local LGBTQI+ bookstore and pre-order now. Thanks to Netgalley for an advance review copy.