Genre: Contemporary Romance, Romance
Archetype: Diverse Protagonists
The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon is a very funny and very sweet workplace romance at a tech company between two super competent programmers (of color!!!) that unfortunately gets bogged down in the lies and secrets…
…of the hero actually being a government agent working undercover. The hero doesn’t come clean until the very end of the book, so it was hard to root for a romance filled with such a constant and long-lasting betrayal of the heroine’s need for honesty.
Samiah is a Black woman working at Trendsetters, a well-known tech company in Austin, Texas. She’s worked incredibly hard to get where she is and she’s very aware of her talents.
Daniel is a Black and Korean man who is a new hire at Trendsetters. But he’s also an undercover FinCEN agent trying to discover who at Trendsetters has been helping a client manage an international money laundering scheme. Samiah is never on his list of suspected evil doers, but she definitely ends up on another list! (He wants to bone her.)
The Boyfriend Project starts off with a very hilarious and engaging series of events: Samiah discovers via Twitter that her boyfriend is a scam artist who’s dating multiple women using different names. Because he is such trash, he uses a reservation that Samiah had made for them, only to cancel on her and take another woman in her stead. Samiah easily crashes her erstwhile boyfriend’s date, joined by another woman who was also dating him. Samiah and his other two soon-to-be-ex-girlfriends decisively and publicly dispatch the liar, and their pointed dismissal of him is recorded and posted online by observers, quickly going viral. They collectively decide to ditch the man and get to know each other instead. The brief interludes that focused on Samiah’s blossoming friendship with the two other women were always a welcome respite from the actual main story. That sense of respite has as much to do with how fun the ladies were as it does with how much Daniel annoyed the everloving Pop Tarts out of me.
Samiah was an easy character to love. She’s smart, she’s hardworking, and she’s deeply passionate about making sure Black girls and women like her get access to the type of opportunities within tech that she had to fight for. Samiah is written in an utterly convincing way that can only speak to a true understanding of the type of perfectionism that’s both a millstone around the necks of so many BIPOC, and absolutely essential to our survival.
“Women in general have a hard time being taken seriously in this industry, but a black woman?” She huffed out a humorless laugh. “We’re not expected to be good at math and science. We’re not expected to understand lexical analysis, or method overloading or any of the concepts that we all work with every single day. It feels as if I’m living under a microscope, Daniel. As if I’m expected to fail at any moment.” She pointed to the ground. “And like that ant, I’m carrying the weight of so many others on my shoulders.”
“But why would you put that kind of pressure on yourself?”
“It’s not as if I asked for that pressure, but I can’t pretend it’s not there. If I mess up that gives Owen Caldwell the excuse he needs to ignore the resume of every black woman that comes across his desk. He can simply say that they tried it, but the last one they hired didn’t work out. Why should they take a chance on another?” She put a hand up, “And I’m not overreacting. I’ve seen it happen before.”
She’s also understandably got some trust issues. Throughout her career, she has had multiple experiences where White coworkers have stolen her ideas and her work in order to pave a path for their own success. Striving first and foremost to be seen as anything other than an Angry Black Woman in the workplace has meant she could not properly call out that theft of her labor.
And since she’s coming off of a very public breakup of a relationship with a man who was just out there lying to her every time he opened his mouth, Samiah has real concerns about ending up in another relationship with the same type of dynamics. Unfortunately, the growing tension between Samiah wanting to not be betrayed again and Daniel lying to her was one that became less enjoyable and more a terrible, slow-motion car crash made of secrets and lies the longer the deception continued.
I really thought I was going to like Daniel. He seemed empathetic and thoughtful, asking about Samiah’s well-being in the fallout of the viral breakup video and more than once guaranteeing that Samiah had quick access to her favorite snacks and meals, like in their work kitchen making sure that her favorite peanut butter granola bars were easily at hand:
“Because you’re not a chocolate fan. At least not when it comes to the granola bars. You like the ones with peanut butter.” He glanced up at her, his brown eyes glittering with irrepressible mischief. “Why do you think there’s always at least one waiting for you?”
Samiah’s heart clutched. “You put a granola bar in the bowl for me?”
He caught her gaze and held it, earnestness supplanting his amusement. “I don’t like seeing you disappointed. You’ve had enough of that in the past couple of weeks.”
Look, I’m simple: hand me a meal when I most need it and I’ll most definitely propose by the time I clean my plate.
Daniel is also thoughtful about asking for her consent:
“If I’d known it was an option, that massage would have been yours.” He reached for her hand, but pulled back before touching her. He arched his brow, seeking permission.
She unfolded her arms and held out her hand. Her demure grin broadened as she gave him a slight nod.
So yeah, Daniel seems like a cinnamon roll of a boyfriend, who might also randomly just hand you a cinnamon roll.
Except, friends, EXCEPT.
Through the first half of the novel or so, Samiah and Daniel play this “will they or won’t they” game, struggling with their pants feelings and their respective trust issues, job responsibilities, and the ethics around fraternization at work. Eventually they do a little smoochy smoochy in the workplace while working late one night. Daniel then gets cold feet and tries to walk back all the flirting and kissing, making Samiah feel pretty terrible about the whole situation.
“I wanted to apologize,” he said. He waited for her to speak. She didn’t. The atmosphere in the office grew a thousand times more uncomfortable.
Daniel swallowed and tried again. “I’m trying to come up with the right words here, but I’m worse at this than I thought.”
Samiah brought her elbows up on the desk, clasped her fingers, and rested her chin on them.
“Let me give it a try,” she said. “Now, the last thing I want to do is speak for you, however, if I was the one apologizing, it would go something like this. ‘Dear Samiah, I am so sorry for acting like a jerk after spending the last three weeks openly flirting with you.’”
He started to speak, but she held up her hand and continued. “‘And, yes, I know that I’m the one one who went in for that kiss, but things got a little too real, so I pulled away like a coward. It must suck to have someone treat you that way, and I feel like a complete dick.’ How was that? Does that apology work for you?”
Daniel shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and swallowed hard. “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
The last two minutes would have been easier to endure if her declamation had held even a hint of humor. It hadn’t. She was pissed.
This was hard. And awkward. And exactly what he deserved.
“Did that apology work for you?” he asked, turning the question back on her.
WHAT. APOLOGY. DANIEL. Nowhere during the entire interaction does that man ever apologize. HE NEVER SAYS SORRY. That’s like Code Fire Lava Red Not an Apology and I was ready to punt him into the sun.
Which leads me to my many problems with Daniel:
At the end of the novel…
….to help him close out his money laundering case, he escalates from lying to her about who he is and what he does for a living to actively taking advantage of her and her security access at Trendsetters to get the information he needs.
Without her knowledge and while she is deep into some post-coital sleepy times, he rifles through her purse to find her access pass and makes a copy of it so that he can use it later to break into a secure area of Trendsetters.
By stealing her security access, he puts her career at Trendsetters at risk. Samiah is at a tech company that gets hired to solve complex problems for companies where discretion is key and where compliance with required security protocols are essential to continued employment. The security is so good that Mr. Fancy Pants Undercover Agent Daniel can’t break it for two months!
It’s such a frustrating move on his part because multiple times throughout the story Samiah talks about how hard it is to be a Black woman in that workplace, that she has to work harder than anyone, that she has to be perfect, that her every action is scrutinized, analyzed, projected, and essentialized to her very existence as a Black woman and to every Black woman that might come after her. Daniel makes all these “oh man that must be so hard”, “you are so amazing”, “yes of course I am listening to every word you are saying” sounds, and then he makes her look, at best, incompetent if not outright complicit in his undercover federal investigation.
It’s a terrible look made only worse by the fact that he literally forgets until about a week after he closes the case that Samiah likely suffered the consequences of his actions. While Samiah expects to get fired, she actually ends up having her security access revoked and being taken off most of her projects for six months.
For Plot Reasons, Samiah thinks this is actually a good thing, but I cannot get past the part where he forgets to check in to see if he got her fired! MY CINNAMON ROLL WOULD NEVER.
And then, ugh the grovel. At least the second time around he remembers to actually say “I’m sorry.”
The part that is even more upsetting to me than everything I’ve mentioned so far is that Samiah, in the midst of the grovel, actually stops Daniel.
She tells him that he didn’t need to do any of this, she had been thinking it over, she would have eventually forgiven him and they would have gotten back together.
Yes, that was very much my face. To my cats, I said, I don’t understand. To my Kindle, I said, ok, but really I don’t understand. Where’s the apology, the discussion of hurt and pain, the empathy, the growing closer through honesty, the rebuilding of trust? Why are the stakes of her work so clear if in the end, we as readers are then expected to dismiss all of that in favor of a romantic HEA?
Throughout the story, at the site of any conflict, communication seemed to break down between the two. Whenever Daniel had to choose between what he felt was required of him for his job and what honesty would require him to do as Samiah’s partner, he would choose his job. And Samiah’s response would be to internalize and rationalize his actions, and then decide she could accept the choices he made. Samiah and Daniel are so cute together during the fun, flirty good times, but at moments of conflict that chemistry, that partnership would totally disappear, leaving reconciliation feeling shallow at best because any of the work to overcome their issues seems entirely and unapologetically one-sided.
Overall I struggled with this HEA because of how both characters unquestioningly put their duties as workers over their relationship with each other. They never question whether too much is being asked of them–whether the hours Samiah works or the responsibilities she is given take more than they give, whether a Black woman can actually thrive in a workplace where she is perpetually being undermined by mediocre White coworkers, whether her desire to improve the pipeline for other Black women is actually being exploited by her company’s desire for some good media coverage.
I just can’t help but see the parallels between Samiah’s relationships (with both Daniel and her ex) and her work experiences. In both contexts, it felt like she was perpetually being taken advantage of. In fighting to make a better world for others, she could not imagine a world that was better for her. That a love who does not lie to her was a thing she could in fact have. That a workplace where she didn’t always have to watch her back while working more hours than everyone else could actually exist for her. It didn’t feel like a HEA for her at all.
The Boyfriend Project opens strong and has many interesting and varied POC characters. But the central conflict, one in which the hero spends the entire book misrepresenting who he is to the heroine, was not handled in a way that made me root for the hero or feel excited when they eventually ended up together. I was just too distracted by the deception and the hero’s inability to actually ever make an affirmative choice not to betray the heroine, that the rest of the story fell flat for me.
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I generally don’t like deception between romantic leads, but I can make exceptions for Mr. and Mrs. Smith-type narratives where 1) both protagonists are equally deceptive, 2) the deception is played for laughs rather than for melodrama, and 3) the protagonists have an open, honest discussion about their lies and their relationship well before the end of the story. Sounds like this book fails on all counts. Hard pass.
Thanks for the review!
I opened this review in a feed reader so I got the title, then the cover, and I started to be excited, because I really like that cover, and then the score. Crash. Great review, and such good reasons to be disappointed in the book.
Such a shame, the heroine sounds great. I’ve read a number of non-fiction books on social engineering and this sounds like a case of that. Just with some actual feelings thrown on top.
I also had the same issues- I liked both characters but by the end of the book didn’t feel that they should be in a relationship together! I also thought it seemed like both of them were mostly into how hot the other one was, and less of an actually liking of the other person.
I was also upset by the ending where she decided that the negative consequences of his actions were actually good for her- I would have been furious in her place! I also didn’t love his grovel.
To be honest I ended the book thinking that these two would have been better off as just an office fling.
But I liked the characters and am assuming Samiah’s two new friends are also getting books and am interested in potentially reading those!
I totally agree with this. There is so much to like about this book. Samiah is great! But Daniel is a hero undeserving of her greatness. I’ll definitely read the follow-up books with Samiah’s friends; here’s hoping they have better heroes.
All of that lying makes this one a no-go for me. Here’s to Samiah finding a better hero!
Thanks for the review. I’m a person who needs to read a whole lot of grovel after a betrayal. Not sure I’d be into this one.
I hadn’t heard about any of Daniel’s plot in this book — only that the ex-boyfriend had lied/cheated and that the women’s friendship was incredibly sweet — so thanks for addressing it in a really comprehensive review! The handling of that plot as you’ve described would have horrified and upset me if I’d just stumbled into it. Deception without both parties having equal footing is a definite nope for me. Especially with Samiah’s on-page dating history…
Even more excited to read her friends’ future books, though!
Ouch! This story sounds like it had a lot going for it. I’m sorry the hero couldn’t be more of a cinnamon roll.
I’m trying to think of a romance where lying works. All that come to mind is the one Tamara Morgan wrote, where she’s a jewel thief and he’s an FBI agent and they both know the other is lying. That one was kinda fun, actually. Stealing Mr. Right.
I gave up on this book before the hero was introduced because the hilarious hijinks set-up of the 3 sequel bait women catching the no-good scam artist boyfriend via twitter made NO SENSE. Not in a fun “what a bananas coincidence” way but a “this isn’t how any of this works” way.
They’ve each been on (at most) 3 sexless dates with this man non of them particularly like yet all 3 are calling him their “boyfriend”. RED FLAG! These are women familiar with the internet and dating in a large metropolitan city and yet none of them think it’s deranged that one was planning to travel with this guy she just met for a date to her reunion MONTHS in advance!! Even the many references to technology felt dated like how people significantly older than these characters use the internet (the confrontation goes viral on “Youtube”. When’s the last time you watched a viral video on youtube that wasn’t a c-span recording?)
The fact that the Bad Man(tm) created multiple online identities and rented a luxury car to trick these women into dates (a chaste dinner?) was so cartoon villain and out of touch with how shitty men actually operate on apps it felt like it should have just been a historical. It certainly has all the social mores of another time.
NO straight man in a major city puts in this much effort. ESPECIALLY the pathological liars. They can get women making 73 cents to their dollar to send them an Uber.
side note: I’m convinced that the trope of women actively seeking dates with expensive cars was invented by a middle-aged man writing teensploitation films to fantasize about how much fucking he wasn’t doing as a teenager. I don’t know anyone millennial or under who gives a shit.
MeMe: So much this. I lasted a teeny little bit longer even though I kept screaming in my head “This is not how any of this works!!!”. I was there long enough to meet the hero and to read the cringey scene where Samiah and her very new friends decide they need a name “that will make people jealous when they hear about us” and settle on ‘Squad Goals’. Sigh.
@Rosario Squad Goals!!!!!
While I understand many readers not being able to get over the secret, I did feel that the hero struggled with was enough to let me move beyond it. I will say that a hero or heroine keeping a big secret is a common trope in romance. The hero was definitely in the wrong but I felt that not only his struggle with it but also his softer side let me see that these two could work to a hea. I loved being able to see myself in this novel as a only black face in a professional setting. Really liked it and can’t wait until the next on the series.
Wow, this sounds like a rage throw it at the wall book to me. And since my Kindle is already struggling, I’m not going to risk it. Which is a bummer, because I’ve been trying to find more BIPOC authors to read.
@Jennavier – depending on what tropes you like you might want to consider another one of Farrah’s books? Some of her Kimani titles are available for free on Kindle. I also really like her small town Louisiana contemps.
@Jennavier have you been to girlhaveyouread.com? It’s a treasure trove! Literally the only reason I sign up for KU. I just finished I Think I May Love You by Christina C. Jones which is a genuine lol rom-com with a hilarious hijinks set-up. Jones is a really varied writer so if you don’t like the tone or style of one of her series try another. Katrina Jackson has a new book out! She packs a punch into a short book by speeding over the low moments and unfun parts to make room for the REALLY fun stuff: 2 married spies and their assistant in love, the professional scam artist and her rich mark… GHYR introduced me to Nia Forrester whose backlist can be problematic but was the only writer who could hold my attention through the early weeks of The Quarentimes. She published a short with a republican hero THIS YEAR and I still read it. He’s obviously confused trash but not a republican for the HEA.
@MeMe, I feel exatly the same! The MC went on only 4 dates with this guy over the course of a month, and no sex so presumably the dates were one-evening things, not a whole weekend together. I didn’t understand why she assumed they were exclusive, or why she was so broken up that he was seeing other women also. She sounded lukewarm about him at best before it blew up, so, although the viral video would have been super embarassing, how did that night hold such power to wound her?