What’s new, readers? YA author and fellow Seattleite Rachel Lynn Solomon (Today, Tonight, Tomorrow) made her adult debut a few weeks ago on January 26 with The Ex Talk, a positively irresistible contemporary romance revolving around a podcast that I very much want to listen to in real life. 29-year-old Seattle native Shay Goldstein has slowly climbed the ranks at Pacific Public Radio, rising from intern to senior producer of human-interest show Puget Sounds over a span of ten years, but hasn’t yet achieved her aspirations for becoming the host of her own show. So it’s completely understandable when she locks horns with 24-year-old reporter Dominic Yun, a recent hire who is already chummy with PPR’s program director Kent O’Grady and makes a big impression in the first chapter by swaggering into the sound booth for a Puget Sounds episode with a breaking story about a mayor’s secret second family. Sure, he may be green and a gasbag, but he also has a master’s in journalism from Northwestern—a tidbit that he manages to sneak into numerous conversations, so much so that his coworkers eventually put up a “master’s jar,” a swear jar that he has to fill with five bucks every time he brings up his degree.
The strife between Shay and Dominic comes to a head when the station, desperate for fresh shows to boost their flagging listenership, holds a brainstorming session, where Dominic shoots down Shay’s pitch for a dating show cohosted by exes who can offer advice and discuss the ups and downs of their own relationship. To the shock of both Shay and Dominic, their antagonistic chemistry convinces Kent to not only sign off on the idea but also select them to be the hosts, even though they’ve never gone out. The prospect of working even closer together than they already are and making up a relationship for their audience is far from palatable for Shay and, in particular, Dominic and his journalistic conscience. The threat of the station sacking them as it tightens its belt, however, forces them to accept the positions as cohosts of their new show, The Ex Talk.
I only heard of this book recently despite social media having apparently hyped it up for months. It looked promising thanks to its eye-catching cover, its Seattle-set radio- and podcast-heavy packaging, and its The Proposal-esque premise. Inasmuch as Enemies-to-Lovers and Fake-Dating are two of my favorite romance tropes, it’s fantastic that Solomon, who used to work in public radio herself, plants them within a workplace setting and then weaves in a twist on the fake-dating plot by conceiving the romantic leads as pretending to be exes. She goes on to create natural development for their relationship as they get to know each other on a deeper level, exchange banter and texts that brim with both piercing wit and utter realism, and shed their rancor to expose the attraction and compatibility underneath the surface. It doesn’t matter how obvious it is where they’ll land in the end, because we’re fully invested in the swoony journey towards that point.
As a general rule, sex scenes should be included in romances to build upon the growth of the characters and their courtship rather than for hollow entertainment—a goal that the author executes effectively. The heat between them doesn’t even head into the bedroom until late in the second act, but after that, the situation in there stays sweltering. It helps that sparks fly between Shay and Dominic from beginning to end of the slow-burn romance, starting when Shay begrudgingly acknowledges her rival’s good looks: “I’ve always been a forearm girl—a man rolling his shirt to the elbows is basically foreplay for me—and it’s a crime that such nice ones are wasted on him.” I believe this is the first rom-com I’ve read that uses forearms as a turn-on, which I find pretty amusing. I especially enjoy Dominic turning out to be a relative amateur in the bedroom while being more emotionally mature compared to Shay. It’s rare to see the male romantic lead in a role that’s typically filled by the female lead, so kudos to Solomon for her subversive spin on this trope.
Speaking as a podcast junkie (here’s a shout-out to Dating Kinda Sucks while we’re talking about affairs of the heart), I appreciate how the author’s adoration of NPR and podcasts shines so brightly throughout the novel. I actually don’t listen to NPR, but the nods to hosts like Terry Gross and Ira Glass or shows like Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! and Car Talk are nonetheless fun. I think the author’s take on radio is expressed the most succinctly when Shay observes that being able to get on the line with a radio host proves “why radio is the best form of journalism. It makes the world a little bit smaller. You can be listening to a show with hundreds of thousands of fans across the country, but it still feels like the host is talking directly to you. Almost, in some cases, like the two of you are friends.”
I’m a sucker for flawed protagonists who are so well-drawn that I need to root for them all the way. Written with Solomon’s exceptionally lucid and engaging voice, Shay comes to life in the rom-com genre as a complicated, somewhat unlikable, and always relatable heroine who tackles her occupation, her perspective on love, and her evolving feelings towards Dominic with a mixture of earnest passion, droll wit, and emotional naïveté. She’s thrown herself into her career ever since she was devastated by the loss of her father, who owned an electronics repair shop and listened to NPR and hosted pretend radio shows with her when she was a child, kindling her radio ambitions. The narrative traces a deeply entrancing character arc for her, navigating coming-of-age territory and various types of love (love for yourself, your family and friends, your profession, your home), all of which cleverly meshes with her and Dominic’s romance at the core of the novel.
The diversity caps off the charm. Shay is Jewish, Dominic is Korean, and the roster of side characters represents a broad range of identities, all of it feeling genuine and appropriate in a location as diverse as Seattle. It’s a welcome contrast to the kind of books that deal with inclusion in a cheap and clumsy manner, as though the authors wanted to merely check off inclusivity boxes without putting careful thought into the portrayal of their characters.
The Ex Talk is already becoming an enthusiastically beloved title among readers. Make sure you add it to your TBR pile if you’re in the mood for an original, funny, and layered love story that boasts enough steam to fog up the glass of its leads’ studio.
All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 93/100