There is a glorious sense of feel good wonder that comes with the very best romantic comedies.
It’s that innate sense that, all indications to the contrary, and let’s face it, at the moment COVID-19 is the reigning bestial monarch of those contrary indications, life is marked with transcendent romantic possibility, a zestful sense of what might be that stares down life’s banalities and possibilities and says real change is possible and it is beyond your wildest, happiest expectations.
That is very much the case with Rachel Winter’s gorgeous rom-com in a book, Would Like to Meet (the title comes from old romantic classifieds jargon) which offers all of the above, and considerably more.
It is far more than than just a Cupid-ian confection, offering up smartly-written characters, meet-cutes (where the two lovebirds meet in hilariously cute, highly bonding circumstances) in hilariously-told and emotionally resonant abundance and a deft us of the genre’s tropes and cliches that never once feel tired and hackneyed.
“My mouth went dry. I was going to lose my job because a man who hadn’t even managed to get dressed for a meeting has decided he was too good to write a romantic comedy? ‘Oscar winners,’ I hissed, ‘wear clothes to meetings. Oscar winners look at someone when they’re speaking to them. Oscar winners write the damn script they’ve been paid for.'” (P. 41)
It is, in so many ways, the When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle of the literary rom-com genre, that zips along at a merry pace, thanks to writing that never ever feels cloying or twee and a protagonist who is self-aware and more than capable of standing up for herself while being flawed enough to make her eminently and likeably relatable.
There is just something inherently delightfully likable about Evelyn aka Summers, an assistant at a film agency who had been trying for years to become an agent, stymied every step of the way, not by lack of talent, drive or enthusiasm for her profession but by a boss, Montgomery, who has seen better days and seems inclined for his own selfish purposes to keep Evie right where she is.
Her life isn’t completely moribund with emotionally close but geographically far away friends – she is in London while they are all in her hometown of Sheffield, five or so hours NW of the capital – and a loving mother but neither is she quite where she wants to be, having foregone writing after a family tragedy and possessed of a social life, such as it is, that revolves around Netflix, avoiding her sex-enthusiastic housemate Jane, and attending boring, gossip-heavy industry networking meetings.
Two things happen to upset this middling apple cart of business-as-blandly-unfulfillingly-usual.
She is tasked by Montgomery with convincing their star scriptwriter, Ezra Chester, with completing a contractually-obligated rom-com that he has yet to even begin, quite some time after agreeing to take on the project.
The problem with this poisoned chalice of a work project is that Ezra is insufferably convinced of his own greatness, an Oscar winner with just one film to his name who continues to act, all recent evidence to the contrary, that he is the present and future of feature film writing.
He will only agree to complete the script if Evie, who is facing a bleak career path without Ezra’s complete and utter acquiescence, undertakes a series of meet-cutes that prove to him that rom-coms have even some connection to real life.
It’s ridiculous in a million different ways and Evie knows it but she is desperate to keep her job and advance her career and so she agrees, heading out on all kinds of odd meet-cutes that recall the very best of films like Serendipity, When Harry Met Sally, Love Actually, While You Were Sleeping, You’ve Got Mail and other indisputable classics of the genre.
The first of these outings brings her to Gil’s cafe, a fun, vibrant cafe where a meet-cute gone messily awry brings her into contact with Ben and his daughter Anette, a hearing-impaired seven-year-old with a vibrancy and cheeky eagerness to her that means she and Evie bond almost immediately.
Widower Ben, a one-time photographer who has given up on his craft for reasons initially unspecified, seems far less enthusiastic than his daughter about spending time with Evie, and so she never gives him more than moment’s thoughts as she tries to engineer a career-saving, rom-com-affirming meet-cute.
It’s hectic, it’s hilarious and often touching, all the very best things a staple of the genre should be, and even though it is giddily obvious that Evie and Ben are meant for each other, Winters has a bundle of fun, and so by extension so Would Like to Meet‘s readers, getting us to that point.
“Why had he given up on this huge, incredible gift? Looking at these photos, I felt like I was finally getting to know the real him. Though, after the way I’d messed things up this weekend, there was a chance I’d never get to find out more. The thought made me feel inexplicably sad.” (P. 212)
The genius of Would Like to Meet is that for all the romantic froth and bubble, and the fun that comes from the fallout of the meet-cutes, which do not, as you might imagine, quite go to plan – can you engineer happenstance and fate? It doesn’t look like it – and the buoyancy and support of Evie’s friends who are a delight, is that it feels real and grounded in a lot of key ways.
Evie could very well lose her job, there is real pain for both her and Ben as they grapple with pain-filled paths and the consequences they have wrought and there is a real sense that for all the confected hilarity of the narrative, which is right there up against the very best rom-coms have to offer, that these are actual people navigating actual lives.
Granted it’s not exactly searing documentary style examinations of their lives but not even the very best rom-coms lay claim to that; rather Would Like to Meet feels real enough that it’s plot doesn’t fly up into the clouds of whimsy and silliness, losing any sense of emotional impact as a result.
The very best rom-com writers, like the fabled and deservedly much-lauded Nora Ephron, knew that to really make your contribution to the genre fly you needed to make it feel grounded and believable in some way.
In other words the situations may be over the top and unrealistic but the people couldn’t be, well at least not entirely, and Winters knows this and delivers it perfectly in a book that is a joy to read and spend time in, a reassuring and exquisitely well-written romantic hug that restores our faith in the very goodness of life, a faith that is being sorely tested right now.
Think of Would Like to Meet then as your antidote to these dark and trying times, a feel-good reminder that wonder and possibility still remain and may be lying in wait right when and where you least expect them.