Professionally, Roxie Esposito is living her dream running a tabletop gaming café with her best friends and found family. Personally, her life is trapped in the same ugly nightmare and she’s barely keeping it together. She’s six months out of her last relationship with another belittling user, and her past is full of women who were “out of her league/too good for her” and constantly let Roxie know it. Over the years, the cruel words of these women simply cemented her mother Clara’s own hateful words and disdainful treatment. When Roxie’s father died, she lost her mother to alcohol misuse soon after; coming out as lesbian turned Clara’s neglect into viciousness and Roxie’s sister’s abandonment into disownment.
Between the slow growth of a new business and taking care of Clara, Roxie is strapped for cash and decides to take on a roommate. When she meets the compact ball of sunshine, Melody “Mel” Roberts, her instant connection to the gorgeous redhead promises compatibility and friendship, but a bleak future of unrequited affection and sexual tension as someone as wonderful as Mel couldn’t possibly be interested in someone as damaged and unattractive as Roxie.
For Mel, moving across country from Philadelphia to San Francisco for the promotion she’s been waiting years for is a daunting, but almost necessary leap of faith. Trapped in a painful, unhealthy living situation with her friend/boyfriend/ex, Will, by her big heart, eager-to-please personality and an inability to say no, the move provides a much needed period to their romantic relationship—in her mind at least. Living with the warm, unapologetically geeky and sexy Roxie provides Mel the soothing, open, and meaningful connection she’s been searching for for years; nevertheless, being newly single in a new city with a new job, no safety net, and an almost desperate to make friends makes Mel as wary of acting on her attraction to her roommate is.
When Roxie’s attempt to re-enter the dating scene and Mel’s visit with Will ends in disaster, both women resolve that their feelings for their roommate need to be shelved. As the months go by and their connection and affections grow deeper, the pull they feel becomes almost impossible to ignore, but Roxie’s inner demons may destroy everything they already have before they get a chance to see if they can have more.
Strength Check is a good found family, character-driven story that introduces a lot of cool characters I’d like to learn more about; it makes all the secondary characters feel as vibrant and important as the MCs. Told in dual first-person POV, you get to see Roxie’s Tabletop Tavern family from that of a long term and new friend perspective. On the whole, the writing style works for me, but the author seems to enjoy metaphors and similes to an almost distracting degree. For the most part, they are clear and effective, such as “Roxie’s words obliterated her and remade her all in the same breath.” But then you run across ones like “Mel’s heart slammed into a collision at the sight of her,” where the word choice makes the image confusing and pulls me out of the story.
As a romance, Strength Check is a bit less impactful as it leans so hard into the mutual pining trope that Roxie and Mel don’t spend much solo or couple time together. Moreover, Roxie’s emotional damage is the main reason they remain apart and it is so severe, it’s a bit hard to stomach for so long and her emotional turnaround isn’t given much room in the story. Roxie constantly has the voices of those she’s cared about (her mom, her sister, her exes) telling her that she’s unworthy; at one point she comments that “with all of those voices crowding [her] head, how [is she] supposed to hear [her] own?” Unfortunately, Roxie’s inner voice is just as toxic as the others—“Half the time she couldn’t even look herself in the mirror without cringing,” making her completely blind to Mel’s attempts at flirtation and ignoring Mel’s constant praise of her beauty and intelligence.
Mel is very confident in a lot of ways, but constantly struggles with the perpetual feeling of being an outsider, not helped by being the only nerdy queer in her longtime “friend” circle. Like Roxie, she is loyal to a fault and tries to hold onto toxic people/relationships because of it. For example, Mel knows Will is draining and toxic and “the venom he spewed clanged around in her head even now, leaving deep scratches in her psyche.” Yet, she still has him come visit her only weeks after their “final” breakup so that she can keep his friendship out of a sense of loyalty and a belief that she is the disposable friend, so she wants to hold onto people regardless of how much they disregard/hurt her. Honestly I think Mel’s lack of confidence has more to do with her crap friends and crap boyfriend than an inherent insecurity in her, which might be why she has a more complete character arc than Roxie. From her career path to her friends to what she wants and is willing to accept, Mel’s character gets a lot of development, whereas Roxie’s doesn’t; she’s only begun her personal growth by the end of the book. On the one hand, it’s understandable because Roxie’s life in most ways are settled (e.g. her job, her friends, her home); on the other, it makes her stagnation in her own and other’s poisonous thoughts harder to handle as the story progresses.
The downside of having dual POVs in a story where there’s no other plot besides the MCs’ relationship is that there is a lot of repetition of thoughts about their perceived unrequited feelings as they generally say the same things. There’s no forward progression in their relationship until 60%, then they’re separated immediately afterwards for various reasons, including lots of self-sabotaging behavior from Roxie and the dreaded “going on a date with someone I have no interest in” thing, which I abhor. It’s selfish in a lot of ways and just self-harming and here feels like extra baggage, drudgery, and additional unnecessary non-obstacles for the MCs to contend with on top of Roxie’s own self-doubt. Roxie has so many defensive layers and is so full of self-loathing, of course it’s hard for her to see positivity in herself and to accept Mel’s feelings, but spending almost the entire book hammering this in leaves little time for Roxie to heal and grow, making the epiphany Roxie has and her about-face seem somewhat abrupt.
The rest of the story has this abrupt, rushed feeling as there’s a book’s worth of sex scenes crammed in next to the last bit of relationship drama in the way of their HEA in the final few chapters. Roxie and Mel are great characters with great chemistry, so I wish I could have had more one-on-one time with them. There’s one nice scene with them at home early in the book that establishes their comfort with one another, as well as their hidden interest, and I was hoping for more of that, but they spend the majority of their time hanging out with the group either internally pining or, in Roxie’s case, being needled by her friends about her and Mel’s obvious heart eyes for each other.
For those who love pining, there’s enough in Strength Check to populate a national forest, and while it doesn’t do much for me, the strength of all the characters, the supportive and awesome found family vibe, and Roxie’s dawning acceptance of her own value by the end make it a solid start to a promising series and a story worth checking out.