CW/TW: Abusive romantic and familial relationships. Rhi’s ex is seriously menacing in a few parts, so take care of yourselves!
Alisha Rai is beloved here in the Pink Palace, so I approached The Right Swipe with some apprehension and excitement. What if I didn’t love it? Would my new friends kick me out of this very cool book club? I’m not always a fan of contemporaries, and am not particularly drawn to stories where the hero is an athlete, so I worried that this might not be the right introduction to Alisha Rai. Thankfully, I could not put The Right Swipe down and stayed up entirely too late to finish it in one go. It was as delightful as I hoped and far more timely and poignant than I had expected.
Rhiannon Hunter or Rhi is the founder and CEO of Crush, a dating app that seeks to create a safer space for its users by explicitly rejecting the brotastic norms of her competitor and former employer Swype. Rhi left Swype after ending her terrible relationship with the CEO of the company. Following the end of the relationship, her boss/ex harassed her, gaslit her, and engaged in retaliatory behavior in a bid to force her out of the industry entirely. Rhi is clearly dealing with PTSD as a result of her experience and as she begins to reconnect with Samson, a former hookup, her fears of being betrayed again impact her willingness to trust him.
Samson Lima is a former NFL player and part of a family football dynasty. Both his father and his uncle played professional football and they both suffered devastating effects as a result of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), including his father’s personality changing entirely and becoming abusive. In speaking out against the NFL for their total lack of regard for the risks associated with concussive and subconcussive injuries, Samson has unintentionally become an advocate for players’ rights and, as a result, a target for those individuals who thought he should have just stayed silent and played football. Samson is also the nephew of Annabelle Kostas (Aunt Belle), the owner of Matchmaker and another competitor of Crush.
After Samson ghosted Rhi a few months before the start of The Right Swipe (with legit extenuating circumstances that we learn about pretty quickly in the narrative!), Rhi and Samson are thrown back together as Rhi continues her plan for world domination by buying Matchmaker from Samson’s wonderfully kooky Aunt Belle. This lovers to enemies back to lovers story was a delightful and thoughtful exploration of trauma and healing anchored by a two people of color who were well-rounded and fully fleshed out characters with realistic roadblocks that complicated the development of their relationship.
Despite Rhi and Samson have some fairly serious issues to work out individually and collectively, this story and their relationship is not overwhelmingly filled with angst. This, my friends, is not an angst-apalooza. Rhi and Samson start working together as part of a joint marketing campaign for Matchmaker starring Samson as a little more than slightly clueless guy trying to find his way through the apparently very complicated world of dating via apps, with Rhi as his guide. But seriously, Samson needs a bit of help:
She [Rhi] inhaled when Samson oh-so-casually asked his date if she liked to “Netflix and chill” with her nephew and his reaction when the far-too-patient woman explained what he was asking. “What did you think Netflix and chill meant?” Rhiannon demanded, pausing the video.
“Exactly what it says! Watch television and relax.” He shook his head, bewildered. “I didn’t know it was about sex. Why can’t people say what they want to say?”
“Because we live in a puritanical society that can’t use the S word out loud.” Rhiannon shook her head. “You’re not that old, how do you not know slang?”
Samson is a good sport about his cluelessness and puts himself through all of the public humiliation because he wants to help out his Aunt Belle any way he can (and use the marketing campaign as an excuse to get to know Rhi).
There are so many things to love about this story! The Right Swipe is a glorious start to a new series and I cannot wait to see how it fully develops. I adored Rhi and Samson as individuals and as a couple, and their friends and family are a delight. I am DESPERATE to read Aunt Belle’s book and hope that she gets to have the stripper-gram in a cake moment that she was denied this time around. There’s a possibility of a f/f romance featuring Rhi’s undeniably dope assistant Lakshmi and Belle’s assistant, Tina. And, as a girl that has on occasion also celebrated with my best friend the moments when I manage to be out in public without a panic attack, I am beyond interested to see the path of healing for Rhi’s best friend, Katrina.
One of my least favorite romance tropes is where there is a misunderstanding between the two lead characters that undergirds the entirety of the narrative. Instead of allowing one character to just clarify a mistaken assumption or explain a seemingly damning set of half-truths whispered by an evil ex trying to make sure their former partner is as unhappy as they are, they spin around a maypole of lies until the very end. Here, thankfully, Samson explains pretty quickly to Rhi why he ghosted her and Rhi is upfront with Samson about wanting to buy Matchmaker from Aunt Elle, so we don’t have a She’s All That “Am I a bet? Am I a FUCKING BET?” moment.
Their general willingness to communicate with each other is apparent throughout the book, but I was especially here for it when Rhi (me putting on my “I’ve been in lots of therapy” hat) is triggered by Samson calling her by her full name rather than her nickname post-orgasm because the last person to do that was her dickbag ex-boss. Her reflex is to shut down and run away, but Samson deescalates the situation so that she feels safe enough to explain what she was feeling and then I sighed with happiness about a scene that had both enjoyable, consent-filled sexytimes AND emotional intimacy.
I was delighted to see Samson’s backstory. His struggles with the effects of CTE on his father, his uncle, his friends, and himself is one that we don’t typically see when a football player is set up as the love interest in a romance. I appreciated this move past the fantasy of what it would be like to date a football player (tall! strong! famous!) and really and truly contend with the permanent costs to their brains and their bodies that we, as a society, have worked pretty hard to ignore. Having CTE be at the forefront of the issues Samson struggles with transforms him from being a handsome, muscley giant to a real person.
To call this a #MeToo novel undersells the specificity that the author has baked into Rhi’s experience. It is absolutely about a woman being harassed in her workplace and feeling like her only choice is to stay silent. But it is also about how as a Black woman who has primarily moved through White spaces, in elite private schools, in Ivy League schools, and then in the tech field, Rhi was always cognizant of her hypervisibility, the risks that she faces, and the higher standards that she had to live up to in order to just be accepted. Rhi’s story reflects the way that Black women in particular have had to navigate the #MeToo movement–she is aware that her belongingness in this world is already vulnerable in ways her ex can exploit and that there’s always the danger that her purported allies may choose to identify with Whiteness ahead of womanhood.
For me, this deployment of intersectionality was unexpected and deeply impactful. As we all know, romance novels are often dismissed as being embarrassing wish fulfillment for sad lonely women who apparently are shameful and pathetic for revealing the existence of their own sexual desires. For me, at least, this book reflected another kind of wish fulfillment–one where I got to see parts of myself that are specific to my racial identity reflected in a text. My own hypervisibility in the workplace and the risks I’ve faced as someone who does not have the same room to fail that a White person might take for granted are things that I’ve had to communicate countless times – sometimes to friends and sometimes to supervisors and colleagues who were unable to recognize their own privilege. To see a real understanding of that struggle portrayed here was my moment to feel like I was that little Black girl seeing Michelle Obama’s portrait at the National Portrait Gallery for the first time.
The Right Swipe is an amazing, well written story about two people of color falling in love as they come to terms with how the physical, psychological, and emotional traumas they experienced continue to affect them both. It was also, for me, a quiet little moment where I felt my existence was acknowledged. For those of us who have to frequently remind others of our humanity, of our intrinsic value, of the validity of our thoughts, values, and the ways we want to reshape this world, to truly see yourself reflected back to you in the mind of someone you never met is an indescribable gift. It’s simply amazing to be seen.