Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance, queer romance, romantic suspense
Series: Chef's Kiss #2
Published by Emily Bestler Books on May 30, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
A fake dating arrangement turns to real love in this deliciously delightful queer rom-com from the author of the sweetly satisfying Chef’s Kiss.
When Luna O’Shea is unceremoniously fired from her frustrating office job, she tries to count her blessings: she’s a proud trans woman who has plenty of friends, a wonderful roommate, and a good life in New York City. But blessings don’t pay the bills.
Enter Jean-Pierre, a laissez-faire trans man and the heir to a huge culinary empire—which he’ll only inherit if he can jump through all the hoops his celebrity chef grandfather has placed in his path. First hoop: he needs a girlfriend, a role that Luna is happy to play…for the right price. She’s got rent to pay, after all! Second hoop: they both need to learn how to cook a series of elaborate, world-renowned family recipes to prove that Jean-Pierre is a worthy heir. Admittedly, Luna doesn’t even know how to crack an egg, but she’s not going to let that—or any pesky feelings for Jean-Pierre—stop her.
Another swoon-worthy and heartwarming queer love story from a charming new voice in romance.
(More chefs! More queer folk! Now I just need the sci-fi. Marlene’s recommendation in a comment on my last post has been added to my reading list, so look for a review on that once conference season is over for me.)
Guest Review by Amy: The opening chapter of this book hit me like a shovel to the face; Luna O’Shea gets fired, abruptly, for no other apparent reason than for being transgender. This is something that is unfortunately common among gender non-conforming people in the United States, and that sort of discrimination is not even prohibited by law in much of the country. Having had a number of friends this has happened to, I found the chapter very triggering and unpleasant, and I had to put the book down and sleep on it, complete with nightmares of me being treated that way. I was tempted to tell Marlene this was a “DNF,” a book that I simply could not finish. But I knew deep in my soul somewhere that author TJ Alexander would not do us dirty like that, and there was something good right behind that painful setup. Turns out, I was right, and I’m glad I kept reading. Once you’re past the rocks and shoals of that first chapter, there’s a lovely, fun story to be had here.
Escape Rating: A+. “Wealthy heir-apparent must appear to be in a relationship to inherit, so he gets a fake girlfriend” is a tried-and-true plot; the romance industry has made use of it for decades, and it’s a great venue for some really comedic scenes. TJ Alexander gives us a slight twist on it here; the wealthy young Frenchman Jean-Pierre isn’t simply an idling playboy, he’s also a transgender man, so there’s some family-acceptance issues in his life, too. His famous chef grandfather has set him a challenge: recreate a pretentious, difficult nine-course meal that he is famous for, and he’s the heir. Fail, and he’s out of the will. He needs a fast cover story for why he’s in New York, instead of talking to his (also famous chef) grandmother from the other side of the family, and transwoman Luna takes the bait – money, of course – and finds herself embroiled in family drama. They’re going to take Papi’s challenge…but neither of them have a clue how to cook.
Our story begins a few months after the end of the companion story, Chef’s Kiss, and Simone and Ray figure in heavily, along with some of the other supporting cast from the earlier novel. I was delighted to see this, as I had really enjoyed the development of their relationship, and seeing what it looked like some months later as an established relationship was nice for me. It gave me a sort of Nora Roberts-esque wish that there was a third story to tell here somewhere, that could be plugged in around these two.
Meanwhile, back to the future in Chef’s Choice…as simply must happen, the not-couple is forced to act like a couple by circumstance way too early, when Luna’s mom shows up, drawn to town by the paparazzi pictures of her daughter with the young man, and a visit to Luna’s weekly friends-gathering at the local pub. Smooth, urbane Jean-Pierre handles all this with a healthy dose of Gallic stubbornness, but when Luna points out that their arrangement is little different from sex work, he loses his cool for a bit. There’s some back and forth – these two complicated people are trying really hard to make it look like they’re the perfect couple, and the challenges pile up fast.
The pair spend a weekend at his grandmother’s lavish condo being taught to cook by Simone and Ray, and we get some of the first hints that something more might be afoot for Luna and her “JP.” Ray is non-binary, and when introduced, Jean-Pierre takes some time to make sure he has their pronouns right in both French and English. Luna finds that sort of caring unspeakably hot – she wants to “shove JP against the labeled shelves and grind like a freaking pepper mill.” That particular statement had me laughing loudly. The book is liberally garnished with fantastic one-liners and in-jokes like that, and it helps make the well-trodden plot a light, fun read, even through all the trials and tribulations.
I shan’t ruin the ending for you. In my review of Chef’s Kiss, I gigged the book slightly for its abrupt ending. I have no such complaint here; Jean-Pierre and Luna go to France for the cook-off, and the various threads of the story come together into a smooth, satisfying end. Along the way, Alexander grasps the question of “what makes a man, a man?” in their development of Jean-Pierre’s character, and touches on how gender non-conforming folks may struggle with the choice of how to interact with the world around them. Both questions are handled in a most gentle way, giving the reader space to consider these matters for themselves without struggle or pain.
Normally, in a book review, we don’t spend much time on the author’s acknowledgements, but this bit at the very end stuck out to me:
So if you’re reading this, you beautiful, powerful, tired trans person, please know that this was my love letter to you. I hope it brought you a little joy; you deserve every bit you can get.
Both of the tales in this series absolutely did. TJ, if you ever read this: thank you, from the bottom of my non-binary transgender heart.
TJ Alexander writes with mandoline-sharp wit, a clever eye for details, and a deep understanding of queer life and culture. This work, like its predecessor, gets my strongest possible recommendation.