Thank you to NetGalley and Simon Pulse for providing me an ARC of the book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. All quotes are from an advance copy and are subject to change in final publication.
Title: Rent a Boyfriend
Author: Gloria Chao
Publication Date: November 10, 2020
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Source: Digital ARC via NetGalley
Age Range & Genre: new adult, contemporary, romance
Content warnings: fatphobia, slut shaming, mentions of racism and xenophobia, homophobia, family estrangement
Synopsis: Chloe Wang is nervous to introduce her parents to her boyfriend, because the truth is, she hasn’t met him yet either. She hired him from Rent for Your ’Rents, a company specializing in providing fake boyfriends trained to impress even the most traditional Asian parents.
Drew Chan’s passion is art, but after his parents cut him off for dropping out of college to pursue his dreams, he became a Rent for Your ’Rents employee to keep a roof over his head. Luckily, learning protocols like “Type C parents prefer quiet, kind, zero-PDA gestures” comes naturally to him.
When Chloe rents Drew, the mission is simple: convince her parents fake Drew is worthy of their approval so they’ll stop pressuring her to accept a proposal from Hongbo, the wealthiest (and slimiest) young bachelor in their tight-knit Asian American community.
But when Chloe starts to fall for the real Drew—who, unlike his fake persona, is definitely not ’rent-worthy—her carefully curated life begins to unravel. Can she figure out what she wants before she loses everything?
Around this time last year, I picked up my first ever YA contemporary romance featuring an Asian protagonist. It was a complete game-changer for me, and something I had no idea I had needed so badly prior reading it. Our Wayward Fate by Gloria Chao came to me at exactly the right time, so when I was approved for an e-ARC of Rent a Boyfriend, I freaked out.
I read American Panda, Gloria Chao’s debut novel, only recently, so it’s even more evident to me how far she’s come since then. Rent a Boyfriend is a story of both Chloe’s and Gloria Chao’s growth, as they explore the nuances in the Chinese diaspora experience and the different ways people express their love – and how the most well-intentioned actions can still cause harm.
The Characters: Chloe Jing-Jing Wang and (An)Drew (Insert Last Name Here)
As much as I love Gloria Chao and what her books personally mean to me, I do have to admit to not always loving her characters. Luckily, this was not the case for Rent a Boyfriend.
Chloe Wang, known to her family as Jing-Jing, has spent her whole life trying to please her parents and not disappoint them by losing face in their exceptionally prestigious, cutthroat community. She gets some reprieve when she’s away at school in Chicago, but coming home to California has become something to dread, especially with her parents pressuring her to accept the sleazy Hongbo’s proposal. At home, Jing-Jing is meek and obedient, and keeps her thoughts to herself in order to keep the peace, but inside, Chloe is dying to express how she really feels and make her parents understand just how deeply their words impact her. But due to a lifelong communication barrier, Chloe is driven to drastic measures in order to convince her parents that Hongbo is not the guy for her.
That’s where Drew comes in. Chloe hires Drew to be Andrew, the perfect Taiwanese boyfriend ideally meant to get Hongbo out of the picture. Andrew is whatever parents want him to be, and has the closet full of college paraphernalia to match. As Chloe’s fake boyfriend, he’s a promising medical student at UChicago, but in reality, Drew is a thoughtful, empathetic artist who was disowned by his parents for following his dreams. He works for Rent for Your ‘Rents to pay the bills, sure, but he also knows firsthand what kinds of fraught familial relationships can drive someone to hiring a significant other in the first place, and he wants to do whatever he can to help, which makes his fake persona, Andrew, even more perfect. With Chloe, though, he doesn’t want to just be Andrew, her fake boyfriend – he wants to be Drew, her hopefully very real boyfriend.
I really enjoyed the progression of Chloe and Drew’s relationship. They (naturally) get off to a pretty rocky start, but once they start to get to know each other outside of the operation, they’re sweet and supportive of each other’s personal journeys. I especially loved the fact that while they definitely help each other, they both realize their self-worth independently.
Making the best decision for you isn’t something you ever have to apologize for.
The Plot: On the first day of Christmas, my fake love gave to me…
Rent a Boyfriend is broken up into Chloe’s trips home: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chinese New Year, and spring break. With every visit, it becomes more and more obvious to Chloe that she can’t continue to be Jing-Jing for her parents and Chloe for everyone else. The problem is, she has no idea how to go about remedying that.
Even though she hires Drew to solve her Hongbo problem, he ends up helping her far more outside of his capacity as a Rent for Your ‘Rents operative. They’ve had vastly different experiences growing up in Asian communities: Drew grew up in a supportive community that banded together because the rest of the world excluded them, and Chloe is used to a hyper-competitive environment born out of the fear that “there can only be one.” Because of this, Drew has a much healthier relationship with Chinese culture than Chloe, while still understanding how difficult it is for her to be so immersed in toxic ideologies.
More than anything else, I think, I had to appreciate the nuances in Chloe’s relationships with her parents the most. Her dad starts off in a pretty familiar place (for me, at least) as a stoic Asian father who keeps important information from his child for what he thinks is their best interest. It was so refreshing to see that stereotypical Asian dad realize his mistakes and own up to them, and actually start to do better by his daughter.
I completely understood Chloe’s frustrations with her parents and was rooting for her from start to finish, and that’s what made it even more important to me that there were good moments with her parents too. She’s able to crack jokes and laugh with her mom multiple times throughout the course of the book, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Chloe is constantly being harmed by her mom’s actions and words and shows just how complicated familial relationships can be.
I choose the life I want, not the one my parents want.
Reasons to Recommend Rent a Boyfriend
Family relationships are complicated – that pretty much goes without saying. We all have our own ideas of what love should look like and feel like, and some manifestations can be extremely harmful to the people we care about the most. There’s more to language barriers between immigrant parents and their children than language itself, and it requires a lot of communication to find that middle ground between generations. And sometimes, communication isn’t enough, and a third party is necessary to help the family start to heal. I’m really glad that Gloria Chao acknowledges this through Chloe’s ideas for Rent for Your ‘Rents’ expansion, and I hope it’s a step forward more families can take together in the future.
While the humor in Rent a Boyfriend wasn’t always my cup of tea, I can see a lot of Chloe and Drew’s jokes landing with other members of Subtle Asian Traits on Facebook. Chang’e is one of my favorite figures from Chinese mythology, and I love how she’s incorporated into their relationship and Drew’s art. There are so many nods to Chinese culture throughout the book, some subtle and some not, and while my family doesn’t personally uphold many of the traditions and superstitions mentioned, they were all still so familiar that it felt like coming home.
Gloria Chao’s writing shines best when it’s straight-forward and straight from the heart, when she’s able to write about painful, fraught, and nuanced situations from firsthand experience, and I’m so glad a book like Rent a Boyfriend exists.
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