If romantic comedies were your only yardstick, it would be all too easy to believe that true love, the kind made of meet-cutes, playful flirting and sweet connections, is as chaste and celibate as they come.
But the fact is we fall in love with our minds and bodies, often the latter leading the way before the latter catches happily up, with falling love being a delicious mix of the carnal and the emotional.
That’s not often touched on in rom-coms, which want to keep it all in the heart and mind, but rather pleasingly A Merry Little Meet Cute by Julie Murphy and Sierra Simone, the title of which suggests cuteness on a wholly sexless but charmingly twee scale, dives right into the truth of love and lust and the way they often end up so mixed together that figuring out which came first (word use fully intended) is an impossible task.
A novel which begs us not to judge who people are in their quest to be who they want they want to be – it’s not saying the former is bad and the latter is good, with the book tackling instead the idea that that’s how society treats it and society has got it wrong – A Merry Little Meet Cute is a refreshing down Christmas’s gorgeously romantic candy lane which knows we are complicated beings who can take a while to sort out which end is romantically up.
That’s what it always came down to. It was all I ever wanted in any relationship – for the person I was seeing to not only be with me at might when things were fun and sweaty and full of delight, but to be there in the harsh light of day when there was no hiding from reality. I wish I could go back in time and tell little Bee that the dark was nothing to be scared of and that the hardest things in life usually happened in broad daylight.
Although to be fair, protagonist Bee Hobbes, who is trying to make the leap from porn to mainstream cinema, and her squeaky clean co-lead Nolan Shaw, once of boy band INK and now trying desperately to live down his x-rated bad boy image, pretty much know which way is which from the moment they meet on the set of their Christmas film, Duke the Halls.
The film, which is about a time-travelling woman (think Outlander) who finds herself in ye olden days and decides to stay there after each find the true meaning of Christmas and love in each other, is meant to be the epitome of wholesome love and pure romance, a seasonal flagship release for the holier-than-thou Hope Channel (yes, another Hallmark analogue which makes merry with the faux innocence of its product) but when all kinds of people and circumstances come together on set after a walrus tusk mishap (trust me sounds weird but its funny) things gets a whole lot earthier than they are meant to be.
Not that anyone is supposed to know.
As far as anyone knows, Bee, a plus-size young twenties woman who dreams of working in theatre and film, even as she’s unapologetic about her current porn career – happily A Merry Little Meet Cute doesn’t play morality police here, making it clear that we all too prone to classify things as bad and good when they simple are – is moving on from some independent student work while Nolan, whose reputation is well known after years of being tabloid fodder, is on his best behaviour, determined to prove he is leading man material and anxious to stay on the right side of public opinion so he can look after his mum, who has significant mental issues, and his high schooler sister.
They must both live out their hoped-for realities not their actual ones if Duke the Halls is going to be a success and consequentially their own lives too, but as A Merry Little Meet Cute progresses in a mix of witty writing and vibrantly cute and funny dialogue, and some lusciously steam scenes which are not what Nolan’s PR wrangler and manager Steph ordered, it becomes clear that keeping what is and what should be apart is going to be way more difficult than anyone imagined.
Lovers on film, Bee and Nolan quickly became that off-set too, a set of circumstances that is physically first and then rapidly emotional, pleasing beyond belief, and spend much of their time, when they’re not ill-advisedly at stripper clubs called the North Pole – the town they’re filming in, Christmas Notch, keeps itself in Christmas mode all year around, a festive persona that all but dictates that every business in town join in with the tinsel-draped gimmick – or getting it in the costume department, living out their fantasies about each other.
Fantasies, by the way, that quickly become the stuff of hidden-away real life, a coming together of heart, body and mind (yes at all once; colour us not surprised since that is how attraction generally works, most rom-coms aside) and which place both their collective futures in peril.
But this is where A Merry Little Meet Cute really gets its thoughtful heart on.
‘We’ll see each other tomorrow. We’ll have a real goodbye.’
‘I want more than tomorrow, Bee,’ he said softly. ‘More than a goodbye and you know it.’
Yes, yes, I did know that. He’d told me as much before. But then why didn’t it feel real? Why did a future still seem as fleeting as the moonlight moving across the church floor on a cold December night?
Maybe … maybe it was because that sometimes wanting it wasn’t enough.
It asks us whether it is better to be honest and open, come what may, or to bow to society’s often unreasonable and unempathetic demands and pretend to be something you are not?
No prizes for guessing on which side of the equation this adorably fun but meaningful story of right love in a wrong set of circumstances lands; A Merry Little Meet Cute is avowedly determined to free us from our moralistic shackles, assuming we have them on in the first place, which many of us do to a greater or lesser extent, and to simply see people as people who love and hope and dream of lives that matter and which are connected to those who feel the same.
As breaths of romantic fresh air go, it’s a soul-liberating joy to read because it preaches – it actually doesn’t, careful not to play the high and mighty card of those inclined to moralistic prurience – that we are all people simply trying to make a go of it and that while you may look at someone and judge them for what they are doing (which, in reality, is just fine thank you very much), you are missing out on who they are and that they are, in so many ways, exactly like you.
They want love, they want fulfilment and they want those they love to find the same, and while sweet, loving, heartfelt Bee and Nolan, victims of attitudes that need some serious updating, are pretzeling themselves not to be caught out as rule breakers, the truth is, says A Merry Little Meet Cute, that they all they are doing is falling delightfully and wholesomely in love.
A Merry Little Meet Cute may play the steamy card to gloriously good, winning effect, playing merry with rom-com convention in a way that works appealingly and magnificently well, but it is, at heart, a parody of morality with a heart of gold that acknowledges with wit, fun and real, pulse-beating humanity, that we are all people wanting connection and fulfilment and that stepping back and simply acceding to that might save us all a whole lot of hiding and pain and let love, real, messy, true love, do its wonderful festive and lasting thing.