Beach Reads Book Review 6: Happy Endings by Thien-Kim Lam
Happy Endings by Thien-Kim Lam is a multicultural Contemporary Romance set in Washington, D.C. Through protagonist Trixie’s Vietnamese-American cultural lens, the writer explores how our identities shape our relationship to success, expressions of familial love, and openness to sensual pleasures. Cultural and familial norms can form us, but it’s up to each individual to pursue their dreams for themselves, and not for anybody else.
Trixie Nguyen is not a doctor, was never a straight A student, and even flunked out of pharmacy school. If that wasn't enough to make her Vietnamese parents cringe, she instead sells sex toys for a living. And it's alienated her from her family for the past two years.
So Trixie has something to prove, to herself and to her parents. She's determined to be successful on her own terms, but also to make her family proud. All she has to do is win her company's sales competition, pocket the $10,000 bonus, and use it to open up her own sex toy boutique. Then she can be her own boss, and use her skills to help women feel more confident and find more pleasure.
And everything was going to plan. She was even experimenting with sex toy pop-up demos in her friend's restaurant. Until her ex-boyfriend, Andre, delivered an order of margaritas to her table. The last time she'd heard from him was when he'd left a sticky note on the fridge ending their two-year relationship. Now here he was, the co-owner of Mama Hazel's and her friend's older brother.
But it turns out that Andre needs Trixie's help just as much as she needs his. Because Mama Hazel's is struggling. The neighborhood is gentrifying, the white hipsters flocking to overpriced salad and poke bowl restaurants that are good for the 'Gram. Andre needs the extra foot traffic Trixie's demos and clientele bring to the restaurant. He's determined to keep his late mother's restaurant, and her legacy, alive.
All Trixie and Andre need to do is keep things professional and it's a win-win for both of them. And when that doesn't work, at least keep things casual. But as Trixie's dream get closer and closer to reality, Andre's get further and further from possible. Can the two bridge the growing divide between their pasts and futures, and find a healthy, honest love in between?
This romance novel that is less RomCom and more erotica. It is VERY steamy. This is not a romance novel for the faint of heart. If you don't want to read about anything anatomical, this is not the book for you. If you do like that kind of thing, the writer does get pretty creative with the whole sex toy angle. And Trixie is the kind of assertive-in-the-bedroom heroine that many a woman would appreciate. And maybe draw a little inspiration from ;)
Thien-Kim Lam does a great job creating a deep sense of place in Happy Endings. Mama Hazel's felt rooted in family, love, and comfort food. We never meet Andre's mother, the late owner of the restaurant, but through her recipes and the community she built around her, we feel her presence everywhere. I loved the recurring commentary around the green's recipe, and Mrs. Harris's--the busybody of the neighborhood--insistence that her recipe was really the best.
The writer also used food to create a sense of nostalgia in Trixie. She'd been estranged from her family for two years. That meant missing two years of family meals, her mother's cooking, and her hometown recipes. But through her fellow Vietnamese friend, Trixie was able to connect back to her heritage through food. I really appreciated that the writer didn't pander to a white audience. She used Vietnamese words for Vietnamese foods, like phở and cà phê sữa đá, and seamlessly used context to help the reader identify what each item was. For example, here's a scene in which Trixie is at her friend's family restaurant:
She found comfort in the sameness of phở restaurants, no matter where they were located. Utilitarian metal chairs with cheap vinyl cushions that scraped the linoleum floor when you pulled them from under the table. Photos of idyllic prewar Vietnam hung on the walls. Depending on the owner’s religion, there may be a small ancestral shrine that held burnt incense sticks and an offering of fresh fruit. Oh, and there was always a small South Vietnamese flag somewhere in the restaurant, the golden yellow rectangle with three proud red horizontal stripes in the middle.
The book struggled, however, when it came to exposition. There was a lot of backstory that really slowed the beginning of the story down. It made Trixie's dialogue very stilted and awkward, as if she was explaining context to her best friend in a way that no friends would actually talk. The forced nature took away from what could have been a really fun opening scene: a sex toy demo with soul food and the surprise appearance of her ex boyfriend!
I also found that the scenes written from Andre's perspective were much smoother and more natural. There was less exposition and more emotion. More inner and outer conflict. Trixie's chapters were much more directive and her plot was really the driving force, but it was as if the writer so wanted Trixie's story to hit all these beats and her motivations to be very clear, that the actual dimensionality and authenticity of the character suffered.
But if you can get through the first few chapters (and can handle the sexy bits), things smooth out overall and the plot progresses pretty quickly, with lots of twists and turns, ups and downs, and kissing.
Happy Endings by Thien-Kim Lam is a thoughtful romance for people looking to read something less cookie-cutter and more real. From funny best friends to broken hearts, sex toys to adult sex ed, this book has all the right ingredients for a good time.