Growing up, Joy had one major snag: she knew she was queer, just not in a way that had a neat, ready-made label. Then she met Malcolm at an LGBT mixer at college. Finally, Joy not only met someone whose identity matched her own, but she had a name for it, too: asexual. For Joy, it was thrilling that Malcolm was an asexual like her. From then on, Joy and Malcolm became thick as thieves. And now, after more than ten years as friends and watching Malcolm fall in and out of love countless times, Joy’s ready for her chance to love her best friend. And she couldn’t have timed it better; Malcolm has asked Joy to clear an entire holiday weekend so they can go on a mysterious trip together. Joy is overcome with, well, joy. She envisions a perfect weekend where she finally confesses her long-held feelings to Malcolm just when he seems ready to reach out with a grand gesture of his own.
Except that Malcolm reveals that this meticulously planned weekend is all so his new girlfriend, Summer, can meet Joy. Joy wants to understand, wants to be supportive. She knows Malcolm’s previous partners have been less than understanding of the incredible bond that she and Malcolm share. But Joy is also close to desperate to take what she sees as her last shot at actually having a romantic relationship with the man she’s secretly loved for years. Thankfully, there’s Summer’s friend, Fox. He seems like an eternal grump and it only takes a moment for Fox and Joy to wonder if they aren’t being set up together. Luckily for Joy, Fox can read her like a book. He sees her longing, her banked love for Malcolm. And he also thinks Malcolm is all wrong for Summer. When Fox suggests faking a romance with Joy to make Malcolm jealous, Joy is all ears. But there is one problem with the arrangement: Joy finds herself genuinely liking Fox.
The Romantic Agenda is a sweeping, contemporary romance from author Claire Kann. I loved these characters, especially Joy and Fox. I loved the premise of two sets of best friends going on a trip together. I loved the simple-at-the-start idea of Joy finally deciding to declare her long-standing romantic love to Malcolm. And I loved watching how the trip turned what seemed like a simple “Joy gets her man” theme into a more delicate and nuanced trip of self-discovery.
The book opens with Joy expecting to be invited to a special weekend with Malcolm (she knows this because she and Malcolm are also coworkers in addition to best friends and she basically wrangles his schedule). This immediately seeds the idea and hope that she and Malcolm get together. I thought it was fun that Kann includes a few references to My Best Friend’s Wedding a few times early on, drawing a few parallels there, but also serving as sort of a warning about Joy going too far. Joy may want Malcolm to love her back, but she’s not willing to completely sabotage Malcolm’s weekend with Summer if Malcolm has truly fallen in love (again) with someone who isn’t Joy. One reason Joy is wary just telling Malcolm how she really feels is because Summer is different from Malcolm’s past loves. Specifically, Joy never even knew about Summer until this trip. I liked the extra layer of “something is different this time” Kann conveys by having best friend Joy out of the loop where Malcolm’s newest romantic partner is concerned. Overall, it was fun for me to balance my desire to see Joy to get what she so clearly wanted (Malcolm) with her desire that she also not be That Girl who will destroy anything to get her own way.
Most of the action in the book focuses on the weekend trip Joy, Malcolm, Summer, and Fox go on. The whole weekend is just four days of relaxing in a luxury cabin, but the character-driven story really helped me feel like I got to know these characters. We see time and again just how close and supportive Joy and Malcolm are. Knowing that Joy hates any kind of camping, Malcolm bought her specific gifts to make her time in the bougie wilderness more enjoyable. We also got to know Summer and Fox. Although Summer was a clear threat to the Joy/Malcolm ship, Fox was a real dark horse when it came to his intentions for Joy. His initial off-page introduction is simply as Summer’s friend who Malcolm doesn’t like. When Joy first lays eyes on Fox, she sees him as taciturn and grumpy. I feel like Joy (and I) were consistently impressed with Fox’s ability to read Joy and respond to her exactly how she wanted/needed, be it catching obscure movie references or appreciating the fine craft of dad jokes.
In fact, one of the best aspects of the book was how Fox offers to help Joy. Specifically, Fox quickly realizes Joy is romantically in love with Malcolm. And Fox is convinced Malcolm returns those same feelings for Joy, but has somehow convinced himself that asexual Joy couldn’t return those feelings for him. So Fox decided he and Joy should fake a friendship/romance to make Malcolm jealous. Joy and Fox enter into this charade with clear eyes and one mission. They just never bank on actually enjoying each other’s company, while also maintaining clear boundaries. At first, those boundaries seem reasonable. Why pour your heart out to someone when you’re both only using each other for mutual gain? But the more time Fox and Joy have together, the less those boundaries are invoked…until someone gets a little too close. Personally, I loved seeing Joy so at the center of attention and building something good and healthy with Fox.
Having two pairs of friends with various romantic and personal connections created a delightful confusion of possibilities. Maybe Joy and Malcolm would find a way to be together–it was certainly the first and most ardently hoped for outcome in the beginning. Maybe Joy would actually fall for Fox–there was no denying that these two had chemistry. Maybe all Summer wanted Malcolm for was to make Fox jealous. Maybe Fox hated Malcolm because he was still in love with Summer. It was like a buffet of possibilities, all framed with the long-standing Joy/Malcolm relationship and the budding Joy/Fox friendship.
For readers who love complex relationships with strong characters, or who love messy love quadrangles, I cannot recommend this book enough. Kann does a superb job giving her characters life, capturing their verve and their hearts, and giving everyone a happily ever after.