Simon Prentiss has dedicated his entire college career to football. He’s arguably the best wide receiver Hayworth College has ever seen. But a pulled hamstring puts Simon on the sidelines and his rival, Parker Reed, in the spotlight. Stressed about being irrevocably cast as an injury-prone player, Simon is not in the best of moods. And when he sees his on-again, off-again girlfriend at a party with none other than Parker, Simon loses it. One punch to Parker’s perfect face, though, is all it takes for Simon to really lose it: his football scholarship, his place on the field and the team, and his unlikely dreams of playing ball as a career after college. The one good thing about leaving football is that Simon can finally explore his attraction to men. Simon thinks he might have struck gold with HotPan22 on a hook up app…as long as his exciting new partner is willing to be patient with him.
Parker never thought Simon would deck him over an uninvited kiss from Simon’s ex. His jaw might have been sore, but seeing Simon lose control sparks something hot inside Parker. Not that he can actually do anything about it. Parker might be pansexual, but football is still a boys club and homophobia would fit right in. It doesn’t matter, of course. Simon’s hot-headed actions get him booted from the team, leaving Parker with the same old hook-up apps to vent his frustration. But someone new, someone just starting to explore their bisexual side, slides into Parker’s DMs. The user, BiCuriousStud, is definitely inexperienced, but something about the guarded flirtiness draws Parker in. It doesn’t take long for the flicker of attraction to grow into a roaring fire. But when they agree to meet in person, the truth comes out: HotPan22 and BiCuriousStud are Parker and Simon respectively. Is their online connection strong enough to withstand the IRL tension of being rivals?
Matched by My Rival is book two in D.J. Jamison’s Thrust Into Love series. The first book seems to center around a different pair, who make a few appearances in this book, so Matched by My Rival worked well as a standalone. The story unfolds in alternating first-person perspectives. Chapter headings and POV changes are clearly marked with the narrator, though I still found myself occasionally backtracking to remind myself if it was Parker or Simon’s chapter. Still, this narrative choice allows readers a great way to experience the opposites-attract main characters. Simon is very intense; he initially experiences a lot of rage over losing football, which he (somewhat misguidedly) believed was a sure thing for his future. I enjoyed that Simon himself is self-aware enough to realize his anger is often misplaced, sometimes even in the heat of the moment. That doesn’t exactly excuse him lashing out, though. Some readers may still find this element of Simon a bit off-putting. Parker is similarly well-defined by his apparent openness, albeit he is open about everything except his pansexuality. But we learn that Parker is actually battling the weight of others’ expectations rather a lot. He doesn’t want to define himself through football, but that’s exactly where he’s finds himself and he grapples with letting down the people who have supported him the most.
For a story that centers around a case of mistaken identities (the reader is well aware that Parker is HotPan22 and Simon is BiCuriousStud on their hookup app), the climax about Parker and Simon finding out the truth comes rather early in the book. I thought Jamison handled the identity reveal in a way that eschewed the easiest melodrama, though the scene is full of tension and, for me at least, flirts the merest hint of possible dub con (both Parker and Simon agreed to reveal their real identities through the app with the purpose of actually hooking up. When the realize they actually know each other IRL, Simon’s high emotions lead him to kissing Parker even though the two are in the middle of a “It’s YOU!” moment). Finding out who they are, however, paves the way for the rest of the story to focus on how the two manage their relationship. Simon is clearly more able to freely express himself, but he refrains—partly out of deference to Parker, who hasn’t come out any more than Simon has, and partly because Simon assumes Parker coming out would ruin Parker’s chances at continuing sports professionally. And therein lies a significant element to their relationship.
Over the course of the book, it becomes apparent that Simon falls a bit into the same “trap” as Parker’s mom, football coaches, and teammates: assuming Parker wants football as much as Simon, mom, coach, and teammates do. Parker brings a lot of personal angst to the page because he’s trying to figure out how much Simon is into him because he might be able to live vicariously through Parker’s accomplishments (just like everyone else). To his credit, Simon simply assumes everyone on the team wants football as much as Simon does, and he goes through a little journey to realize that is not true nor should it be.
Our main characters also spent a lot of mental energy trying to figure out how serious the other is about their growing connection. For one thing, this is Simon’s first relationship with a man. Both he and Parker experience questions about how deeply Simon feels their connection—and if Simon is feeling things for Parker specifically or just excited about exploring sexuality with another man. Then there is Simon’s fear that he’s not good enough for a star like Parker. A lot of this insecurity boils down to the disparity in how hard Simon had to work to be an excellent wide receiver and how good Parker is without having to push himself like Simon did. I thought all of these facets worked well to build a complete picture of the characters’ lives and the complexities they faced. For me, it took a few tropes and wove them together in a way that made it satisfyingly nuanced.
Overall, I think Matched by My Rival is an excellent story for readers who love the idea of enemies to lovers, mistaken identities, and secret boyfriends. Die hard sports fans may find the lack of on-the-field action a bit disappointing, but if you’re like me (and cannot fathom the surreal intensity around Football Culture), then you’ll be thankful that the football action is almost entirely relegated to a few speeches from coaches off the field.