Farrah Rochon’s The Boyfriend Project was one of my favourite books the year it came out, so in fairness to The Dating Playbook, my hopes and expectations coming in were sky-high. And The Dating Playbook is a good novel — Rochon has a gift for sizzling chemistry, complex characters, and emotions that’ll rip your heart apart before putting it back together again. But mostly… it was okay, and after The Boyfriend Project, that was a bit of a letdown.
Admittedly, part of it is that nerds just grab me more than athletes do, and sports romances aren’t usually my thing. So the story of Taylor, a personal trainer who’s hired to get Jamar back into NFL-ready shape after an injury, isn’t usually a romance I’d pick up unless I loved the author. I did like how Taylor and Jamar pushed each other physically — Rochon does a great job in the training scenes of ramping up the sparks as each main character notices new things they like about each other — but all the stuff about proper nutrition and buying healthy groceries weren’t all that interesting to me.
Beyond that, though, the romantic conflict fell a bit flat for me. I’m usually a huge fan of the fake dating trope, but in this case, the premise felt thin, and I found myself having to continuously suspend my disbelief about why they had to continue the illusion that it wasn’t real. Part of it was that I found the initial premise more believable — Taylor raises a valid concern that dating Jamar would hurt her professionally, because it would make any future endorsement from him suspect. That made a lot of sense to me; women are so often accused of using our sexuality to advance in our careers that I can see why Taylor would want to keep things strictly professional.
So when Taylor does a complete 180 and decides that pretending to date Jamar would actually help her career instead of harming it, I found it a hard sell. I recognize the value of social media publicity, but I found it hard to believe that the benefits of publicity would outweigh the compromising of Jamar’s objectivity in endorsing her. It was especially frustrating because the novel included an easy out for the fake dating plot — the journalist who ‘broke the story’ is presented as super ethical, and would have been amenable to a correction.
The fake dating plot felt artificial to me from the start, and as the story progressed, the insistence on keeping the relationship fake felt even more forced. One of the reasons I’d loved The Boyfriend Project so much is that the conflict felt inescapable — both main characters’ professional interests were directly at odds with each other, and the big secret between them was necessary for reasons beyond the characters themselves. In contrast, the way the conflict played out here barely had teeth, and was a disappointment.
That being said, Rochon delivered on showing us how much Taylor and Jamar care for each other. A scene involving oral sex is emotionally-charged and beautifully written, and I love how it ties in the love between the leads and the various emotions playing out in their lives beyond the romance.
I also loved the non-romantic conflicts that Rochon set up for both leads. Taylor’s coming to terms with her learning disability is wonderfully done — I love how she starts off masking her fear of school with the pretense of finding it useless, and I also love how she gradually comes to terms with the realization of how much a college degree will help her career. I’ve read other novels that treat this subject with less depth, often just accepting as given that a college degree is important. So I very much appreciate how Taylor begins with a genuine belief that a college degree isn’t necessary, and how she actually does manage to garner some success without one, until circumstances show her how much more a college degree will help her achieve. I also appreciate how Rochon treats Taylor’s goal as not centered on the college degree itself, but rather on her broader vision for Taylor’d Conditioning. And I love how the novel delves into Taylor’s decision-making processes, and shows concrete examples of how going to college will help her achieve that vision.
Jamar’s personal growth is even more emotionally-charged — I love how his despair over a potentially career-ending injury and desire to get back into NFL-ready shape are tied both to his personal dreams, and to his deathbed promise to his best friend Silas. I love the history of friendly rivalry, mutual admiration, and yes, professional jealousy between the two men, and how that colours Jamar’s determination in training. And I especially love how his growth arc plays out, how his decisions are based on a whole range of factors, including his pride, mercurial public perceptions, his love for Silas, and his continuing relationships with Silas’ family and with Taylor. It’s such a complex hodgepodge of elements that add nuance to his training, and Rochon handles it beautifully.
Overall, it’s a good book, just not a great one, and after The Boyfriend Project, that was disappointing. Independent of the comparison, I found the first half slow, and may have DNF’d if it were another author, but I’m glad I kept reading, as the emotional payoff in the second half made up for it. The third book, London’s story, which seems to be about her class reunion and the guy hired to organize it, will be out in Summer 2022.
Thank you to Forever Romance for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.