This is such an adorable, heartwarming, and sweet romance, an utter delight to read from beginning to end! Kaylee is a fan fiction writer, at a hotel for a convention for the Sherlock Holmes show The Great Game. They’re excited to meet online friends, try out they/them pronouns for the first time, and also, kiss a girl for the first time. Teagan is Miss Virginia at a teen pageant in the same hotel. She wants to win for the scholarship money, and she has big plans of finally coming out as lesbian once she enters college and is free of the conservative (read: homophobic) pageant world. Teagan’s a secret fangirl at heart, so she sneaks into a convention party where Kaylee’s dancing with some friends, and, well, the sparks start flying.
Both main characters are new to queer romance, and both are still in the process of figuring out their respective sexualities. So the romance between them is honestly one of the sweetest I’ve read in a while. Teagan’s blushes as she notices how sexy Kaylee looks in their soldier John Watson cosplay is just adorable, and I like how part of what catches Teagan’s eye is how the costume plays with male and female gender expressions without quite fully committing to either. And Kaylee’s flurry of text messages to their friends about making out with Teagan, coupled with their friends’ excited squeeing in return, just took me back to high school, and all the fun, uncomplicated joys of having a crush like you back. The author does a great job of describing the giddiness and sheer enjoyment of first love, and from their first meeting to the final page, I was 100% shipping Kaylee and Teagan the entire time.
I also love the storylines the author crafted for both main characters beyond the romance. I love Teagan’s friendship with fellow pageant contestant Jess. So much of what we see about beauty pageants in media focuses on the cutthroat nature of the competition, or the over-the-top controlling nature of pageant moms. But this book shows as well the mutual respect that can develop alongside intense rivalries, and the bonds of friendship that can form when you grow up together in the same competition circuit. In a similar way, Kaylee has their real-life best friend Ami, and their online friends Cake and Lady, whom they meet for the first time at the convention. I love how the author explores this side of online friendships, how people can form supportive networks online, and how for some, it can be easier to be themselves online than in real life.
Similarly, I love how both Teagan and Kaylee have strong interests in stuff beyond the pageant and the convention. I thought the subplot about Kaylee’s fanfic fame and writing competition seemed a bit unrealistic, but I’m also the first to admit that’s likely just my envy talking, as there are indeed real-life seventeen-year-olds who find similar success. I did find myself more drawn to Teagan’s backstory, with her interest in art, her mom’s death by suicide, and her resulting ambition to become an art therapist. I love how all of that played out in the pageant, and I absolutely love how it paid off for her in the finals.
My one (minor) snag is that I wish the villain got her just desserts. In a rather convenient coincidence, both Kaylee and Teagan share the same nemesis: Madison, a.k.a. Miss North Carolina. The Regina George of Kaylee’s school, Madison bullies Kaylee constantly, to the point that Kaylee feels genuine fear when they see her at the hotel. She also seems intent on sabotaging Teagan’s chances at winning, so as to improve her own, and I don’t know if she just has a hate-on for Teagan, or if she’s just as shady with the other contestants. At the hotel, she commits a couple of acts of what I consider violence against the leads. No spoilers, but I think one would be enough to earn her a suspension if she did it in school, and the other should have gotten her disqualified from the pageant if she’d been caught. Madison doesn’t quite succeed in getting everything she wants at the end, yet she also seems to have gotten off really lightly, and I can’t help wishing that some more karma had come her way.
Still, all that being said, the overall impression left by this book is one of joy. Kaylee and Teagan are really sweet protagonists, and I loved watching them grow together and towards their happily ever after.
Thank you to St Martin’s Press for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.