REVIEW: Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
CW: anxiety, depression, grief
Dear Talia Hibbert,
I don’t really know what fits into the “rom com” subgenre and what just falls into the contemporary bucket. My personal preference is to regard all of them as contemporary romance and not bother about the rom com label at all. That way, if a book doesn’t strike me as funny (humour being very subjective and often mood-related) it hasn’t failed and I don’t have what might be unrealistic expectations going in. But also, I know from various discussions I’ve seen online that there is some debate about heavier topics in rom coms and whether they belong. I don’t know the answer to that to be honest – my solution is to neatly sidestep the entire thing. By regarding the book as contemporary romance I’m not concerned if heavier topics arise and I feel better able to respond to the book on its own merits. So, I’m going to describe this book as a contemporary which, among other things, made me laugh. I did spend much of Take a Hint, Dani Brown laughing out loud with glee and delight.
While the book is funny and charming, sexy and sweet, it also does cover some heavy topics in a fair amount of detail. The male lead, Zafir Ansari lives with anxiety, was previously clinically depressed and is coping with grief at the sudden deaths of his father and his brother in a car accident some years earlier. I’m not an expert in any of those things but it seemed to me the representation was authentic, empathetic and done well. (These issues aren’t a subject of the humour in the story of course. I’ll add here that the comedy does not come at the expense of others and is never mean – a thing I greatly appreciated.)
Danika Brown is a Black bisexual 27-year-old member of the junior teaching staff in literature and women’s studies at a UK university with plans to gain her professorship within 15 years (18 at most). Her area of expertise is misogynoir after in the post-chattel slavery period. She is an interesting juxtaposition of wonderfully brash confidence and emotional vulnerability, scary competence and focus and stuttering emotional uncertainty. I loved her. She is body confident, professionally confident and very comfortable in the love and affection of her family (especially her sisters, Chloe and Eve) and her friends but has walled herself off from romantic love, believing she is bad at relationships. She therefore eschews romance in favour of mutually agree friends-with-benefits arrangements. The last such relationship ended when her FWB, Jo, caught feelings and wanted more than Dani could give. Dani was upset that Jo broke their unwritten contract and Jo was upset that Dani couldn’t return the feelings she had and it ended badly. At the book begins, Dani, who is also a witch, prays to her goddess for a new fuck buddy and asked for a sign.
She does not initially think of Zaf Ansari, a 31-year-old English-born Punjabi man; former rugby player and current romance-reading security guard based in the building where Dani teaches her classes, as being a suitable candidate even though he is very nice to look at and he certainly qualifies on the “friends” part of the FWB equation.
But Zaf was kind, and Dani had always had a soft spot for kind men; they were fabulously rare. Sadly, Zaf also avoided staring at Dani’s chest with the kind of Herculean focus that suggested either disinterest or an excess of chivalry—and Dani couldn’t stand chivalry in a man. It frequently led them to make ill-advised decisions, like inviting her to have dinner before sex, or hanging around and talking after sex.
Dani and Zaf have wonderful banter, snappy and a little sarcastic but never unkind. She brings him a coffee every morning and he gives her a protein bar (because she always forgets to eat breakfast). He is her friend and after losing Jo as a friend, she is reluctant to risk Zaf. However, after Dani is stuck in a lift during an emergency evacuation drills and Zaf rescues her she begins to think the universe is giving her that hint she asked for all those months earlier.
That wrist aches a little bit. Perhaps I wrenched it.”
“Right,” Zaf said, his eyes burning something awful. He looked mutinous, but evidently not with her, because he stepped forward and slid her rucksack gently off her shoulders. “I’ll take this,” he murmured.
“Oh, no, it’s okay, I—”
“Danika,” he said, iron in his tone. “I. Will take. This.”
“I knew you were bossy, but I had no idea you were this bossy.”
“Yeah, well,” he muttered, “now you know. Just like I know you have a dodgy grasp on time. We’re even.”
She shot him a glare. “Why do I put up with you?”
“I think it has something to do with my wonderful beard.”
“Shut up, you awful man.”
As Zaf exits the building with Danika in his arms, cellphone cameras are pointed their way.
She gave them a sunny smile—as her bonkers grandmother Gigi would say, always put your best foot forward—and Zaf looked down at her with obvious bafflement. “What are you doing, Danika?”
“Being beautiful for my people.”
He let out a burst of laughter. “I wish I could carry you around all the time. You do wonders for my mood.”
Thereafter, #DrRugbae is born and they become a viral sensation.
Zaf has a charitable foundation, Tackle It, which promotes mental health for youth rugby players. He started it after his own mental health tanked following the death of his brother and father. His experience with the media at that time was horrendous and he has therefore been reluctant to promote Tackle It very much and has avoided linking the charity with his former rugby career. #DrRugbae provides and opportunity to get much-needed publicity for Tackle It and hopefully also make some new associations so that Zaf isn’t just the rugby player with the tragic past. His social media-savvy niece, Fatima, suggests he exploit the notoriety of the viral footage for the benefit of his foundation and shortly thereafter, Zaf and Dani embark on a fake relationship.
Of course, they are both deeply into each other. As Dani’s sister says when she sees the video:
“If his eyes were penises,” Eve went on wisely, “you would be pregnant. With twins.”
and it seems to Dani that the universe keeps pointing her toward Zaf and so after a little time, she suggests they combine the fake relationship thing with a FWB thing. There are strict rules – no catching feelings, no sleepovers.
Zaf, having spent quality time working on his mental health is very in touch with his feelings and is the more emotionally brave of the pair. He knows from the beginning that it’s too late for him to not “catch feelings” but he does not intend to charm Dani into changing her mind. Rather, he hopes that the time spent with her will be something of a cure so he will be able to walk way. Romance readers all know where this is heading but as is often the case it is all about the journey rather than the known destination in this genre.
Dani sees herself as emotionally clueless but she is not. She is in fact a very caring person, devoted to those she loves. Zaf does not expect more from her than she can give and is actually very satisfied by the attention and affection she gives him for the most part. Dani is not used to being enough from a romantic perspective and struggles to trust it.
Zaf is a romance reader and in this, he and I share something. Both of us came to romance (in my case, I came back to romance after more than a decade) in the midst of a really tough time when the power, promise and magic of a HEA had a kind of life-saving elixir to it. Zaf’s reasons were slightly different to mine – he sought hope for the future, I sought escape from the reality of the present, but the effect was the same. You’d think then, as well-versed in the genre as Zaf was, he’d have known the inevitable end of a fake relationship. LOL.
Apart from wonderful characterisation, delightful witty banter and some hot sex, there are also some most excellent turns of phrase and word pictures, revealing character and adding to the rich tapestry of the story. For example, here:
She pinned her eyes to the slightly dented chrome doors as she waited, Jo’s words circling in her mind like a children’s merry-go-round. Perhaps the motion was why they made Dani feel slightly nauseous.
“I’m not in love with her,” Zaf gritted out. Because he wasn’t. He couldn’t be. There were lines and boxes and sensible paths, and Dani was over the line and out of the box and in the middle of the woods, so no, he was not in love with her.
I have been in something of a reading slump lately, clinging to comfort reads and struggling with new-to-me books. So it says something that I enjoyed Take a Hint, Dani Brown so very much.