REVIEW: All the Feels by Olivia Dade
CW: Domestic violence themes, fatphobia
Dear Olivia Dade,
First off, may I just say that the cover is perfect. It’s entirely true to the book and just staring at it makes me happy. Leni Kauffman (the artist) is such a talent.
Alex Woodroe is an actor on the Game of Thrones-esque TV show Gods of the Gates. They’re just finishing the final season which was written by the showrunners rather than being based on books by the author as the earlier seasons were (sounds familiar). Alex, whose opinion, it turns out will be shared by many people, thinks the final season is a huge disappointment and for personal reasons, he’s struggling with his decision to stay on for it, feeling like his character arc will do damage to real world people. He plays (adult) Cupid and the showrunners have ruined his romance story with Psyche (because they are Phillistines who do not understand the romance genre *cue groans*. Unfortunately this feels authentic.) As the book begins, he’s being chewed out by one of the showrunners, Ron, about being arrested the night before after a bar fight. The assumption is that he was drunk and brawling but nobody – literally nobody – has actually asked him what happened.
To stop him “getting into more trouble” he is assigned a “minder” – Lauren Clegg, who happens to be Ron’s first cousin, visiting the set prior to embarking on a Spanish holiday. Or at least that was her plan until she got roped into babysitting Alex.
Lauren is an emergency room clinician, specialising in triaging patients with acute mental illness who come to hospital. When working with patients and advocating for them, she is strong and no-nonsense but in most other respects, she’s an appeaser. This means she takes all the holiday shifts because she’s single and she does more overtime because they “need” her. She is used not just by her employer and co-workers but also by her family and she’s currently being used by Ron – a man she doesn’t like but to placate her mother, she pretends. She’s recently left her ER job due to burnout and is taking some much-needed time to rest and regroup and decide what’s next for her. The very large salary the studio will pay for her work (trying to) keep Alex out of trouble will mean that she will have longer to make her decision so she thinks it’s a pretty good trade-off.
Aside from professionally, Lauren is remote and removed for the most part. She’s so used to putting herself last she’s forgotten how to put herself first (if she ever has.)
Alex is not remote or removed. He’s obnoxious and over-the-top, big-hearted and generous, impetuous and outrageous. Part of that is his ADHD but part of it is just Alex. In a lot of ways, he reminded me of Mal from Kylie Scott’s Stage Dive series (my favourite character from that series – well apart from myself but that’s another story). Alex is his own character of course but I think he may also be a little polarising for some readers (not this one mind you). He’s exhausting and vivid and always active. As Lauren finds out later in the book, the only way to really shut him up is to kiss him. I loved him but I also think Lauren is a saint for being able to spend so much time with him without her head exploding. I’d need a rest. (I said that about Mal too IIRC.)
The dynamic between Lauren and Alex may seem odd at first. Alex is, seemingly, terribly mean. He’s provocative and full of insults and sarcasm. He has many names for Lauren which do not speak flatteringly about her role in his life (a role he resents, even though he does not resent her).
“I’m trying to figure out how I should introduce you on the red carpet. ‘Lauren Clegg, Freelance Foe of Fun’?” Alex stroked his bristly chin in faux thought. “Or perhaps ‘Nanny Clegg: Like Mary Poppins, Minus the Umbrella and Any Sense of Whimsy?’”
But it works for two reasons. To illustrate one of them, here’s the next line in the book after the quote above:
One of these days, Lauren’s middle finger was simply going to raise itself.
She doesn’t take Alex’s bullshit. She calls him out and gives back as good as she gets. Alex loves it.
And from a few lines down in that same scene, there’s this:
Whether the argument convinced him or not, it was helping her. The echoing pulse in her ears slowed and grew fainter, and the lace of her dress resumed feeling soft, rather than stifling and scratchy.
Alex uses his nonsense to help. Sometimes it’s to distract Lauren from discomfort. Sometimes it’s to provoke her into being present (he’s screamingly frustrated by her remoteness) and sometimes it’s so she can have something he knows she wants but will not take for herself.
Her fingers paused over the bagel with the most cream cheese, but she reached for the other plate, leaving him the bagel she’d silently deemed best. He managed not to roll his eyes, but it was a near thing.
He plucked her plate from her hands and claimed it for himself. “This bagel had the most salmon. Don’t be so selfish, you absolute shrew of a woman.”
The remaining plate, its bagel mounded high with cream cheese, he plopped in front of her, and she stared at it in silence for a minute.
“Thank you,” she finally said, very quietly.
“For what?” He scoffed. “Taking the most salmon? You’re welcome. Please feel free to thank me when I claim whatever slice of cake has the most frosting too.”
Lauren wasn’t really into frosting, he’d learned, which was preposterous. Possibly un-American.
(I agree with you Alex. Frosting is one of my favourite food groups.)
Lauren is a fat woman, much shorter than Alex (who is muscular, tall and completely gorgeous; he’s an actor who takes his shirt off quite a bit so of course). She’s not conventionally beautiful. She doesn’t have any kind of makeover during the course of the book either. Alex is fascinated by her from the start. He likens her to a Picasso. She thinks it’s an insult but he doesn’t mean it that way. Beautiful people are a dime a dozen in his world. She’s interesting and has some sharp edges to her face and he is a big fan of the soft roundness of her body. He does take a while to realise what he’s feeling is attraction though.
Even through her tee, the warmth of her skin heated his palm and tingled in his fingertips, and it was absurd. An overwrought response born from exhaustion, clearly.
Lauren’s BFF is Sionna. They share a duplex and are the founding members of the Harpy Institute for Crone Sciences. They have t-shirts. (The “BHE” on Lauren’s tee on the cover stands for Big Harpy Energy). It sounds fun but there’s substance behind it, not least of which is this:
Sionna might have created the Harpy Institute for Crone Sciences out of newly widowed grief and rage, but she’d also created it out of concern for Lauren. Because she wanted Lauren to engage with the world again.
No, more than that. She wanted Lauren to claim her own space in the world and defend that space.
Alex is delighted by the HICS. He actively encourages Lauren – or, Wren, as he calls her, to get her shrew on. He loves it when she unapologetically takes up space in the world. He and Sionna have a common goal in what they want for Lauren. But Lauren is not used to putting herself first. Not even a little. In fact, the central conflict between them is about this very thing. Alex is kind. He’s viscerally offended when fatphobic trolls say or do insulting things. He’s also impetuous and reactive and Lauren is terrified he will harm his career while defending her. She doesn’t want to be the reason he loses his career. (It takes her a while to really understand that it’s his career to lose if he so chooses.)
I appreciate your instinct to defend me, more than you know, but you have to learn to let it go, Alex, the same way I have.”
By all rights, the car should be festooned with the exploded remains of his head.
“What?” Somehow, that was all he could articulate. “What?”
The story takes place over a number of months and Alex and Lauren become friends. She has to, contractually, be with him whenever he leaves his property. One of the symptoms of his ADHD is insomnia and he is often up late at night, walking the stairs near his property. Lauren of course is with him. Alex begins to recognise his feelings are more than friendship (Lauren has long since of course realised her own attraction but does not think he would ever think of her as a potential romantic partner) but will not act on them because of the employer/employee relationship. There are lines he will not cross.
Lauren can’t control Alex’s behaviour of course. Despite Ron’s imprimatur, there’s really very little she can do to stop Alex from doing something if he wants to. And so, it happens that he gets into more trouble and Ron has a conniption.
The result is that there is no longer the employee/employer barrier between them. Alex is not ready to let Lauren go from his life and suggests a road trip along the Pacific Coast Highway. Lauren, feeling much the same, agrees. (This is not a spoiler – it’s in the blurb.)
One of the ways Alex has been working out his frustrations with the final series of Gods of the Gates has been to write fanfic. (It features a lot of pegging.) Since falling down the AO3 rabbit hole, he’s become deeply invested in all the tropes and then this happens.
“Let me get this straight.” He braced his hands on the counter and leaned in closer to the clerk. “There’s only . . . one bed?”
The young man blinked at him. “Yes, sir.”
When Alex pumped his fists in triumph, punching the air, Lauren and the clerk both jumped.
“This is the best day of my fucking life!” he shouted. “Only! One! Bed! My second-favorite trope!”
He swung around to beam at her. “Lauren! Did you hear?”
In dual POV books, it can sometimes be the case where there is little difference between the “voice” of each main character. That is most definitely not the case here. Alex and Lauren are very different people, for all that they come to love each other and clearly belong together, and it shows in their inner monologue was well as their dialogue. Alex has far more exclamation points and emphasis added in italics. Lauren is drier and the “straight man” in their comedy duo. One of the joys of Alex’s life is to make Lauren laugh and he manages it on the regular. He made me laugh too. And so did Lauren.
There are some wonderful interstitials in the book featuring some of the fics that Alex writes, text message chains between Alex and his long-suffering BFF, Marcus, and Gods of the Gates “cast chat” which are often hilarious as well. Alex’s text messages are a sight to behold.
There’s also a delightful medieval theme featuring references, overt and subtle, to fealty and heroism. And there are actual castles which form a bit of a roadmap to those themes.
I should mention too that Alex has significant guilt over a violent relationship his mother was in. I won’t say more about it here because it would be a spoiler but note the CW. What happened to Alex’s mother and Alex’s feelings about it inform his character significantly and drive much of his behaviour. By the end of the book, Alex is learning better ways to deal with some things. He will always support DV shelters and be generous with his time and money because it’s an issue close to his heart.
Right up until very near the end the book was perfection. And it only became not-quite-perfection when things got sad between Alex and Lauren in the third act. I just didn’t want them to be sad. I didn’t want them to be apart and I hated it for them. It speaks to how invested in the characters I was. At the same time, I wanted Lauren specifically to react differently a little earlier than she did – Alex had made his position clear and her revelation came a little late – but fortunately not too late.
I’m a hero-centric reader and definitely #TeamAlex but that ought not take anything away from Lauren. I loved her wit, her brain and her inherent, automatic, respect for others. I loved her body confidence (I wish I shared more of it myself). From the first with Alex she had a certain line; she would not retaliate but would hold her position. This was her professional self and reflected how she would have been in the ER with a patient. As he provoked her, as they became friends and built trust, she allowed the rest of her to be revealed and when she was… well, she was fierce and more than a match for Alex in every way.
When she spoke, her breath wafted over his nipple, and he shuddered. “If I pull you down to kiss you, are you going to bitch about your neck and back?”
“Yes,” he said. “Do it anyway.”