The Charm Offensive is an adorable, feel-good romance that invites us to expand our notions of happily ever after. More, it invites us to dare to dream of achieving it for ourselves, regardless of the cis-heteronormative, conventionally ‘attractive’, and white ‘ideals’ often touted on mainstream media.
Ever since getting hooked on reality dating show Ever After (a very thinly veiled stand-in for The Bachelor) as a child, Dev Deshpande has believed in fairy tale romance. He gets his dream job of actually working on the show, but after breaking up with his boyfriend of six years, Dev has come to accept that a fairy tale romance may not be meant for him. This season’s prince, tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw, is more anxious and awkward than charming. He joins the show to rehabilitate his professional image, but physically recoils whenever a contestant tries to touch him. As one of the show’s handlers, it’s Dev’s job to turn Charlie into the kind of prince viewers will swoon over.
From the moment Dev opens the door to Charlie’s limo, and Charlie literally comes tumbling out to land at Dev’s feet, it’s obvious where the story is going, and it’s an absolute delight to follow Dev and Charlie on their journey. There’s even a fun meta-wink at the audience when Dev asks his fellow producer Jules to take Charlie on a pretend-date to make him more comfortable around the contestants, and Jules jokes that because she isn’t hot, rom com convention dictates that Charlie will likely fall in love with her instead. To head off that risk, Dev takes Charlie on the pretend date instead, and as they get to know each other over a 1500-piece puzzle and the sci fi show The Expanse, Charlie begins to realize why he isn’t at all attracted to any of the beautiful women vying for his affections.
Dev and Charlie’s romance is tender, slow burn, and filled with all the feels. I absolutely love how their mental health conditions come into play, and how part of their romance involves how much they give each other the space and understanding to be fully themselves. I also love how much they push each other to be better — Dev by encouraging Charlie to step out of his comfort zone and actually let loose once in a while, and Charlie by calling Dev out on how he loves the idea of love but really pushes away the real work and risk of actually being in love. By working with and through each other’s discomfort, they give each other the support they need to grow as individuals. And the ultimate message — that you’re worthy of love no matter how much family, friends, and society may tell you otherwise — is beautiful.
I also appreciate the diversity of approaches to, and experiences of, love represented amongst the side characters. Even purported ‘villains’ like Dev’s ex-boyfriend and the contestant viewers will love to hate are treated sympathetically, and provided with enough complexity in their motivations that they’re not truly evil. That being said, the novel does have its full-out villains — Charlie’s ex-business partner, who stigmatizes Charlie’s mental health needs, and the Ever After showrunner, who takes a narrow, homophobic approach in maintaining a particular version of a happy ending for the show. One can perhaps explore sympathetic motivations for these characters as well, and their need to conform in order to achieve success, but the novel deliberately withholds its sympathy. In doing so, its message is firm: intolerance is intolerable. The ways in which this ultimately plays out, particularly for Ever After, is perhaps fairy tale-ish in its improbability, but it’s certainly a happily ever after to aspire towards, and one can only hope that mainstream media is indeed beginning to catch up.
Overall, this is a beautiful and sweet fairy tale of a love story, that is deliberate about incorporating into the fairy tale realities such as mental health, uncertainty about where one fits on the LGBTQ2SIA+ spectrum, the social stigma that is often encountered with both, and the recognition that such stigma hits particularly hard for women and BIPOC folks.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.