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Not Here to Make Friends

NB: This is a review for both this book, and the entire trilogy.

I adored Jodi McAlister’s Marry Me Juliet trilogy. This contemporary romance series lovingly satirizes the Australian version of The Bachelor while offering a lot of wish fulfillment for fans of reality dating shows. Each book includes at least one moment that I’ve always wanted to happen on The Bachelor—from two bisexuals who fall for each other instead of the lead, to having all the women on the show organize together to reject the Bachelor star. It offers plenty of backstage drama alongside humorous insights about The Bachelor franchise. I think reality tv romance readers will especially enjoy these books, but the first book in the series offers adorable forced proximity and sympathetic characters that could hook other romance fans.

In Here for the Right Reasons, Cece is a regular watcher of Marry Me Juliet, a Romeo and Juliet-themed dating show that she and her best friends love to dissect. Cece applies for the show on drunken lark with no intention of following through…until she loses her job and decides to use the show to become an influencer. This is a terrible idea because Cece knows even less about social media than I do. Unfortunately for her, she becomes a babbling mess when she sees a camera and is quickly cut the first night by the show’s first lead of color, a kindhearted Olympic athlete named Dylan.

Luckily for us readers, a pandemic lockdown forces Cece and the other rejected women to stay at the same sprawling fancy property for the rest of filming, causing endless opportunities for drama. The show’s manipulative producer, Murray, is working hard to tell a fairy tale romance between Dylan and his gorgeous Juliets in the hopes of convincing the network that racially diverse casting can work. Behind the scenes, Dylan and Cece are fast becoming lockdown besties…and maybe more. But are either of them willing to blow up the show and Dylan’s chance to make Marry Me Juliet less racist?

Cece and Dylan are the sweetest nincompoops who struggle to see that their growing feelings are reciprocated. I thought Cece’s reactions to the manufactured reality tv environment were pitch perfect and felt like exactly what would happen if an awkward person ended up on The Bachelor. She wonders aloud why the women are forced to walk down a slick wet driveway to meet Dylan, and then promptly slips and nearly takes out both of them.

Still, Cece isn’t completely unskilled. She’s a former foster kid who deploys her ability to survive annoying environments by ignoring the women angry that Dylan spends most of his free time with the weird girl from episode one. I devoured this book because I loved Cece’s resilience and Dylan’s nurturing but I couldn’t see how these two would resolve the tension between their commitments to the show and their relationship.

Each book in the series is set in the same season of Marry Me Juliet and retells the same timeline of events in a different way, filling in conversations and budding relationships that we’d missed in the previous stories. It’s hard to review the other two books without spoiling Here for the Right Reasons because the other couples are a big surprise revealed at the end of the book that precede it. So if you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now.

Everybody good with your life choices?

Ok, let’s dig into Can I Steal You for a Second. This book follows two contestants who just ooze super sexy competency: Amanda, a White car mechanic still healing from a toxic queer breakup, and Dylan G, who’s Pasifika, and a nurse burnt out from the pandemic. Yes, Dylan has the same name as the male lead on the show. This was an amusing gender-neutral twist to The Bachelor’s habit of casting multiple Bens and Kelseys on the same season. I especially loved how the name overlap allowed Amanda to wail about falling for Dylan while the other contestants have no idea which Dylan she’s referring to.

I also loved that while Amanda has the more masculine-coded job, it’s Dylan G who is the protective badass during filming. Dylan G frequently steps in when the season’s villain, Lily, bosses other contestants around, giving Amanda a chance to swoon every time. These two had super strong sexual tension but I am sad to report these are cracked door romances at most. Since all the contestants are living together in bunk beds, the story had a classic lesbian boarding school vibe. However, I do wish the book had included Dylan G’s perspective, instead of making me read about her through Amanda.

By the time I read book 3, I was amazed by the creativity in the storylines and surprised that I never felt bored revisiting the same month-long time period. The third book, Not Here to Make Friends, takes that creativity to a new level, showing how seemingly hapless producer Murray was actually more observant than we thought about the romantic entanglements of Cece, Amanda and the Dylans. Yeah, he let the show go off the rails, but only because he was distracted by his pants feelings for Lily, the contestant everyone loved to hate.

Lily “Fireball” Ong is a polarizing character in the first two books. She’s loud, bossy, and not afraid to push women into swimming pools when they annoy her. She exclusively wears bright lipstick and brighter dresses, yelling at other women who dare to show up for a group date in the same hue. While Murray is scheming to push the other contestants together (or apart), Lily always seemed to be two steps ahead of him, snagging Romeo-Dylan’s attention and hogging screen time. I adored her from the moment she appears.

Lily is an amalgamation of The Bachelor’s most entertaining scene-stealers, like self-described princess, Erica Rose and Corinne Olympios of “my heart is gold, but my vagina is platinum” fame. Unlike most reality shows, the villains on The Bachelor are usually White women. Lily is Vietnamese Australian, and she knows that means the hate coming her way from viewers will be exponentially more intense. She is happy to sacrifice her reputation for more diversity on Marry Me Juliet, and plans to ride the wave of hate into social media stardom. The only person trying to protect Lily from herself is Murray.

To explain why means spoiling all three books.

Show Spoiler

Here’s the deal. Murray and Lily are long-time best friends and reality show producers who are estranged and haven’t spoken in a year. Lily secretly casts herself on the show as a plant, surprising Murray, and upending his narrative plans for his first season as showrunner. The book alternates chapters between the present day on the Marry Me Juliet set and their past history as friends. I admit the first time a flashback to Lily’s past appeared, I groaned. I tend to dislike it when stories alternate between the main characters’ past and present with every chapter. But I actually appreciated the flashbacks here!

The past chapters are told entirely from Lily’s point of view, and they help contextualize both her and Murray’s behavior in the present. We see that he used to be phenomenal at his job, for example, so his current failures to minimize chaos on set are definitely tied to the mess with Lily. We learn ice queen Lily has been into Murray since they met, but the timing never works because one of them always has a partner. I love a realistic obstacle to friends becoming lovers!

Throughout their friendship, Murray has been Lily’s biggest ally at work, fighting to get her the credit and promotions she deserves against various sexist bosses. Murray is a brilliant strategist but he is fully aware that Lily is smarter than him, and admits it. Murray’s love and support for Lily before he even wanted to sleep with her catapulted him into my Feminist Hero Hall of Fame.

The flashback chapters are short and they move through ten years of the friendship quickly, so I never felt like they were dragging me out the main story. I found myself rooting for Lily and Murray, both as producers who were trying to make their little corner of television more progressive, and as people who are obviously perfect together even when they haven’t figured that out yet.

Not Here to Make Friends pulls off one of the most compulsively readable villain redemption arcs I’ve read. Murray and Lily are unapologetically devious and revel in their ability to make people cry in service of great tv. The other characters don’t trust them since Amanda and Dylan G have to skirt around Murray’s manipulations, and Cece and Romeo-Dylan are befuddled by Lily’s unpredictability as she careens around set causing mayhem on camera while helping them sneak around behind the crew’s back. By the time I started the third book, I was dying to see if Lily and Murray could make sense as a couple.

Murray and Lily are the best kind of antiheroes. He’s cunning but usually for a good cause (aka taking down misogynists). She’s a chaos demon who loves pushing people’s buttons to make drama. Murray spends most of the third book falling apart from the stress of Lily’s stunts while Lily appears devastatingly calm, collected, and in emotional control. They are so similar and yet so different it’s really delicious to watch.

Lily’s point of view unfolds the mystery of why she decided to go on the show, and I just melted into a puddle of love after hearing everything she’s been through. This book combines enemies to lovers and friends to lovers, two of my least favorite tropes, and I loved it anyway! I appreciated that Lily and Murray have the same goal–entertaining reality tv with diverse representation–they just disagree on how to get there. Their partnership was really inspiring to read, even though they start and end the book as flawed workaholics who love scheming.

The Marry Me Juliet stories have very different tropes, but the themes are similar across all three books. There’s a lot of sneaking around to keep relationships secret, characters with a strong personal moral code, and healing from grief through found family. The characters in the books take the social impact of reality tv seriously and make it part of the stakes for all three couples, which I found refreshing and unusual among reality tv romances. At the same time, the stories were soapy, fun, and laced with biting social commentary. I desperately wish I could actually watch this most dramatic season of Marry Me Juliet yet on my tv screen.

Editor’s note: Here for the Right Reasons and Can I Steal You For a Second? are available digitally in the US. On June 4, 2024, Not Here to Make Friends will be released in print by Atria.

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