REVIEW: Playing House by Ruby Lang
Dear Ruby Lang,
Oliver Huang and Fay Liu, are both Chinese-American urban planners in Manhattan. When Oliver is first introduced to the reader he presents himself as unemployed and taking some short term contract work to keep himself afloat. But it became apparent to me that what he really is is a self-employed freelance urban planner. Fay is a partner in a boutique firm, Milieu, she started some years before with two friends and colleagues.
As it happens, Oliver sent his resume to Milieu about a year ago and the day he bumps in to Fay during an historic house tour, he has finally received an email about an interview.
Oliver’s feelings about his current work status are complicated and wrapped up in how he believes his mother sees him. His brother and sister are both wealthy and successful. Oliver feels like the family failure. Their dad was shiftless and irresponsible and left them years earlier. Oliver does not want to be like his dad but he thinks his mother feels he’s just like him. At 36, Oliver feels like his career choice has always been a disappointment but after the firm he had been working for went belly-up he’s even more sensitive about it.
Fay’s marriage imploded about a year before the book begins. She didn’t realise just how unhappy her husband was; he didn’t tell her how boring he found her work and she felt blindsided by the revelation that what she thought was fine was really, really, not. She’s had a few dates via online apps but hasn’t really put herself out there. Her new apartment is yet to be set up; she’s living out of boxes and doesn’t have a couch or many amenities. She hasn’t had the energy to really get going again.
Oliver is very surprised when Fay comes bustling up to him and kisses him at an historic house tour in the city but plays along when it becomes apparent that she is trying to escape a persistent stalker-type who won’t take no for an answer. Fay and Oliver have been long-time acquaintances but Fay was always married so neither of them ever considered there could be anything else between them. Now, however, they are both single and they have a lot of fun pretending to be dating while they take in the tour. They are both urban planning nerds and have a lot in common professionally as well as personally.
Oliver doesn’t tell Fay he is unemployed and Fay doesn’t think about it. He is initially confused about whether Fay knows about the pending interview and isn’t saying anything for reasons and they’re having so much fun together and he feels so ashamed of his current work status he doesn’t tell her later on, as they spend more time together looking at houses and pretending to be “Oliver and Darling Wife”.
This is the central conflict of the novella and unlike a lot of times when characters keep a secret from one another, I didn’t hold it against him. He had reasons and they made sense to me.
No, now was a terrible time. He should have brought it up before, but he hadn’t been using his brain. And right now, right at this moment, he was with a woman who made him happy. They were eating food. They were comfortable in each other’s presence. He didn’t want to talk about his personal failings—not this kind, not when she admired him and was pleased with him and the things he could do. Maybe it was selfish, but he didn’t want his so-called problem to be the thing they talked about for the rest of the night. Because it could easily become that. He could see how he would slip into the role of one of her projects. Because she was energetic, and she was a natural rescuer of people and places.
He didn’t want to become her project. He wanted her just to like him, to like being around him.
Added to that, Fay had specifically said to him that they shouldn’t talk about work. Fay’s reasons for this are about her getting out of a rut and also a little about the scars from her divorce; her ex-husband said she droned on and on and on about work and it bored him rigid. So she’s doing a different thing.
Oliver is a different man than Fay’s ex-husband. He likes her nerding out about urban planning. He enjoys her skills and competence and her drive. Fay finds herself feeling more confident and happy.
Fay was happy that week.
It wasn’t that she’d necessarily been unhappy before. Her life didn’t lack for jokes and friends and good conversations and absorbing work. Even when she’d been in the middle of the divorce and seething, or spending hours on FaceTime with Renata, she’d still managed to laugh.
But there was a difference—it was like the difference between breathing when she had a mildly annoying cold and then one day, taking in a big lungful of oxygen and realizing the airways were clear. This was what it meant to feel well.
Oliver and Fay have so much in common and they fit together well. I was a bit surprised at Fay asking Oliver what his intentions were very very early on – fortunately they were interrupted and that conversation went nowhere but at the same time, because the conversation when nowhere it didn’t fit very well for me in the context of the story. Even though that one particular scene felt a little too much, I liked that Fay was direct and blunt-spoken. Sure Oliver was holding something back but otherwise, they interacted like mature adults, being open and honest with one another and I enjoyed that very much. It was the best thing about the book. I find it sexy AF to be honest.
So it was a bit of a disappointment when, the truth having come out that Oliver is interviewing for a position at Fay’s firm, they then proceed to not talk to one another for what felt like a really long time, about what was really going on. The story is novella-length but the conflict felt artificially drawn out to extend the page count rather than being entirely consistent with the early characterisation. Their time apart does have some benefits though, as separately, Oliver and Fay make some decisions about their lives which make them happier and more “relationship ready” but I really wished they’d talked to one another earlier.