Rating: 4.5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

Ande’s only had one single break in his entire life: his parents’ landlord graciously let him stay in his childhood apartment rent free for a few months after his folks died when his uncle’s meth lab exploded. On top of the stigma that soon swirled around him, Ande had little money and fewer prospects, and was stuck in his backwater town. Ande might not be able to escape his history, but working his butt off as the local electronics fix-it guy at least keeps the worst of it away. He also works on maintaining his one worthwhile friendship with his gaming friend, Katiya. Between work, games, and the semi-regular trip to the local gym, life may be lacking in excitement, but at least he’s stable. Or as stable as he can be, considering the only way Ande can get off is by wearing silky lingerie. But as a young single person, he can keep that little skeleton firmly in the closet.

Then Ande meets Red, a hot new arrival in town who looks like he’s trouble with a capital T. When Ande realizes that his gym schedule is falling into sync Red’s, he’s all the more inspired to commit to fitness. And, of course, there’s that one time Ande caught Red in the showers, gloriously nude and sporting not only pierced nipples, but a Prince Albert as well. Before Ande can resign himself to unrequited lusting from afar, a computer issue brings Red to Ande’s door and, soon thereafter, his bedroom. It was supposed to just be a hot hookup, but then Red finds Ande’s vice: a pair of lacy red panties. However, Red doesn’t show an iota of disgust. Instead, he seems intrigued–so much so that Ande lets himself set aside his spiraling anxiety about needing this kind of sexual crutch to indulge Red. Stranger still is that what was, for all intents and purposes, going to be a wild, one-time thing morphs into an intense physical and emotional connection. Things are far from perfect, however. Ande is not prepared for Red’s intensity and Red risks losing Ande entirely if he pushes Ande too hard towards self-introspection and self-realization.

Better Girlfriend Material is the first book in the Red Trilogy from author Em Jae Black. Ande is our narrator and, per the front matter in the book, Ande largely identifies as male and generally uses he/him pronouns in the story. While there is an intense relationship that developed between Ande and Red, Ande’s own journey through what the author identifies as dysphoria, anxiety, and self-negativity is just as much (if not more) central to this story. One thing the book does rather well is push readers to acknowledge gender in very specific and, frankly, graphic terms. Ande was a delightful vehicle for this kind of reflection/introspection because his dysphoria doesn’t seem centered on his genitals (in point of fact, he rather seems to enjoy having a penis), but how doesn’t think he fits into society until Red offers/challenges him to a public date with Ande dressed in traditionally female clothes. These feelings and expressions of self felt like they widen the concept of gender beyond man/transman or woman/transwoman to something more inclusive.

In addition to a deep exploration of someone discovering their queer identity, there’s the explosive nature of Red and Ande’s relationship. I say it qualifies as instalove. Red barely spends more than a few days (in on-page book time, though the narrative sometimes felt like it played fast-and-loose with how much calendar time was passing between scenes/chapters) before he’s committed. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine anyone more supportive than Red. Time and again, Red constantly and gently informs/reminds Ande how important he is to Red. On the other hand, he demonstrates some borderline unhealthy behaviors and even straight up red-flags. One example is that towards the end of the book, Red and Ande have hit a rough patch and are not seeing each other. Or so Ande thought. But because Red was stalking Ande, Red was able to step in a key moment to help Ande. Red was such a fascinating character who I found myself loving and questioning.

Meanwhile, Ande struggles with his self-image and that bleeds into how he acts and reacts with Red. There’s a sharp distinction between how Ande acts with Red in private and in public. In private, Ande seems to accept his “kink” and fully engages in the physical aspects of his relationship with Red. In public, Ande is loath to be mistaken for Red’s boyfriend. Yet when Red arranges (and Ande accepts) a chance to go on an adventure while Ande is dressed like a girl, that feels as deliciously good for Ande, as it does devastatingly temporary. This was another vehicle through which the nature of Ande’s dysphoria was explored. I thought Black did a marvelous job getting Ande to hold these two identities at once and how his subconscious and conscious thoughts coexist in conflict.

Finally, words can barely describe how intense Ande and Red get while being two consenting adults. Not only do they have stunning chemistry, but they explore it a whole bunch on page. If that’s your bag, you have a lot to look forward to in this story. The sex also ties very distinctly into Ande’s complex identity and Red’s consuming-yet-nuanced love of Ande.

Readers who are interested in a thorough exploration of gender identity and expression, self-discovery, and super steamy romance are sure to love this story. There’s also a bit of an age-gap element with Ande being 23 to Red’s 40, and a wrong-side-of-the-tracks element with Ande being pretty dirt poor and Red being mysteriously super loaded. I would encourage fans of these tropes or who are intrigued by the characters and their unique get-together story to give this book a try.