The events of the last couple weeks have underscored how crucial and life-saving the romance genre is to me. It’s an escape, a safe haven in the storm, and a place where happily-ever-afters are always guaranteed. Romance has literally (and I don’t use that word lightly) saved my life while I clung to a spark of happiness amidst the terror of recent events. Playing House isn’t a perfect novella, but it came into my life at the exact right moment. For a few hours, I was able to escape into a world of urban planner nerdery, fake dating, real estate pr0n, imperfect but relatable protagonists, and joy. Because that’s what I felt the entire time I was reading Playing House: joy.
Recently divorced Fay Liu is touring a historic home and trying to get rid of an annoying man who can’t take no for an answer (don’t worry, he vanishes after the first three pages and we can pretend that something nefarious befell him). Caught in a desperate situation, she spots fellow urban planner Oliver Huang and lays a big one on him. Sweet, darling Oliver is confused but happily plays along until Annoying Man finally takes the hint and leaves. Our love interests flirt adorably, geek out about urban planning adorably, and part ways adorably. And keep meeting up again and again in different house tours, pretending to be in a relationship so that they can examine expensive real estate and scope out different NYC neighborhoods (it’s easier to get an appointment if the realtor thinks you’re legitimately looking to buy). It’s perhaps not entirely ethical, but I can’t be mad when it’s something that I would totally do if given the opportunity.
Problem #1: the fake-dating is getting less and less fake as time goes on.
Problem #2: Oliver applied for a job at Fay’s firm and is hesitant to bring it up while they waltz around NYC (in his defense, he thinks that Fay might already know about his application and Fay told him that she doesn’t want to talk about work).
You can see where this is going, can’t you? It’s a bit predictable while hugely enjoyable, and I finished this novella with a big smile on my face.
I am the perfect audience for Playing House: I’ve seen every single episode of House Hunters (and House Hunters International. And Tiny House Hunters. And Island Hunters. You get the idea). I waste money on cable just so I can watch HGTV and nothing else. While I enjoy cackling at Americans’ insistence on granite countertops in small tropical countries or broke travelers’ shock at bathroom sizes in Paris, I have a guilty secret: I don’t watch just for the real estate pr0n. I watch for the ridiculously scripted, definitely fake, and melodramatic couples who seem as though they should be filing for divorce instead of applying for a mortgage. I don’t know what this says about me, but my heart grows three sizes larger whenever Spouse #1 wants a rustic cabin in the countryside while Spouse #2 is set on new construction in the heart of the bustling city.
Well, it turns out that I’m not a total grinch: I can root for adorable house-hunting couples who have similar preferences in architecture and don’t actively hate each other. Fay and Oliver are technically not 1) house-hunting or 2) a couple (yet!), but do the details really matter? What matters is that Fay tours a bedroom that is mostly bed and immediately fantasizes about pulling Oliver into that bed. Their mutual lusting in third-floor bathrooms, coupled simultaneously with their admiration for walk-in closets and tall windows, meets at the perfect intersection of my interests. And now I think I’m a bit ruined for House Hunters because I’ll want every couple to bone in the prospective houses before making their final decision (HGTV, if you’re reading this, I will accept 2% of the profits. Call my agent).
For readers who are genuinely interested in architecture (I imagine there may be a large overlap between SBTB readership and crown molding enthusiasts), this novella was written for you. As soon as I read “curlicues ringed the ceiling,” I sighed and retreated to my happy place. I don’t pretend to be an expert on urban planning or NYC real estate issues, but nothing makes me happier than competent, smart people displaying expertise in their field. This expertise may come in the form of gorgeous restoration descriptions or insular jokes, but it’s something I deeply appreciate. A protagonist’s career shouldn’t be regulated to the background, and urban planning is 100% at the forefront of Playing House.
Even more than the real estate pr0n, I loved how real the protagonists felt. Oliver is unemployed and thirty-six; he feels insecure that he’s living with his younger brother and doesn’t initially believe that he’s worthy of someone like Fay. A hero like Oliver isn’t that common in the Romance genre. So many protagonists — especially heroes — are at the peak of their careers and income-earning status. They’re driven by ambition and rarely lost in their mid-thirties. While the majority of the novella is filled with cute banter and house tours, Oliver’s desperation and insecurity seeps into every aspect of his character — his self-worth, his own perceived “deservedness” to be with Fay, and his relationship with his critical mother and overachieving siblings.
Fay isn’t all giggles and sunshine either. She’s recovering from a divorce that took an emotional toll on her. She’s deeply protective of her career, especially because her ex-husband exhibited unreasonable jealousy over Fay’s dedication to work. She’s not opposed to exploring a new relationship, but she’s not reckless either.
“If I don’t protect myself, no one else will do it for me. I’m not some newly divorced woman wanting a giggle and a cuddle. I don’t need a fling. I already did that—sort of. I’m going to be honest with you: I want something serious with someone serious.”
Another way in which the protagonists felt incredibly real is their awareness of the city in which they work and live as urban planners. While negotiating tricky emotions and interactions, they also acknowledge how the real estate surrounding them has meaning and value beyond sale prices:
It was easier to concentrate on other matters: to pause to look up the history of the neighborhood on their phones, to hold up before and after pictures of houses that had been burned-out shells, to hope that more houses had stayed in the hands of Black residents, to pause to argue lightly about the Whole Foods that had sprung up on 125th Street.
Both Fay and Oliver have so much emotional baggage and yet embark on the cutest rom-com premise imaginable. I can’t think of a couple that deserves it more. They’re perfectly imperfect; reaching a happy ending doesn’t magically get rid of that baggage, but it’s proof that everyone deserves a movie-perfect meet-cute and a swoonworthy happy-ever-after.
Even though I loved the protagonists and the premise, I did struggle with the aftermath of the Black Moment. My main issue with novellas is that they’re often not long enough to settle conflicts because they rush through the aftermath of the climax, and that’s exactly the case here. The actual Black Moment is satisfactory, both parties self-reflect, and they make up after communicating like real adults (shocking, I know). There’s nothing wrong with any of this on paper, but it just felt…abrupt. Most of the post-Black Moment emotional realizations come when they’re away from each other (one of my favorite scenes is when Oliver talks with his mother toward the end). But when they finally reunite, the ensuing conversation feels short and unfinished. Boom! Happily-ever-after! I know novellas are bound by length constraints, but I wish Oliver and Fay spent more time together after the Black Moment.
Despite my quibbles about the rushed ending, I enjoyed Playing House and look forward to reading future installments set in the NYC real estate community. It’s a must-read for the summer if you’re looking for an adorable, empathetic, and joyful romance. And if like me, you’re having trouble coping with the never-ending stress and misery of real life, I encourage you to pick up Playing House to transport you into another world for a few hours. It might be the escape you desperately need; it certainly was for me.