Xeni was such a treat to read. When I heard this contemporary romance had a chubby Scot and an African-American witch, in a marriage arranged by a dead relative, I was all in. These characters felt realistic and like they could have been my friends, albeit the kind of friends who keep sneaking away to bone in the bathroom. Their romance was both completely absorbing and drama-free. It was like drinking an automatically re-filling glass of champagne; it’s super bubbly, enjoyable, and you never have to pause for a sadly empty glass.
Xeni is a Los Angeles kindergarten teacher, and practicing witch, from a vibrant family of opinionated women. She’s bisexual but hasn’t had much luck finding a lover who appreciates her. That doesn’t keep Xeni from recognizing how gorgeous, talented and goofy she is. When her favorite aunt, Sable, dies, Xeni heads to upstate New York to pack up her house alone. Aunt Sable’s relationship with her sisters was tumultuous; her solo career ended their Motown-esque band together and launched a multi-decade conflict. Everyone expects Xeni to inherit her house as the only family member to maintain a close relationship with her aunt. But the will contains a few surprises for Xeni: 1) she’s Sable’s biological daughter, 2) Sable left her millions of dollars, and 3) claiming that money requires that she marry Mason, the Scottish musician Sable befriended a few years before her death.
Mason is big burly bearded bisexual bagpiper. He’s been cooking at his cousin’s cafe to pay off a family loan, and has built a happy but lonely life for himself with chosen family supplanting his biphobic parents back in Scotland. Mason first sees Xeni while playing “Another One Bites the Dust” at the funeral, but they don’t speak until Sable’s lawyers bring the two of them together and dangle a bequest for Mason large enough to free him from debt. Sable’s matchmaking beyond the grave is exactly the kind of elder antics I enjoy, and while Mason and Xeni are shocked, they are willing to roll with the idea for at least the few weeks it will take until a divorce can be initiated. They both miss Sable and see this fling as the perfect distraction from grief, and the implications of the will’s revelations. They flirt, play with the trappings of marriage (wedding night, ring-shopping), and fall into bed repeatedly. They have sex because they want to, with no hand-wringing about it. Their playful dialogue allows the two of them to shift seamlessly from emotional revelations to teasing:
[Mason said] “What do you want to be when you finally grow up?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, come Monday, when all the paperwork is filed, you won’t have to do it for the money anymore.”
“God,” Xeni said, making a noise like a strangled gasp. Mason looked over to see a sort of wide-eyed terror spreading over her face. “I didn’t even think of that.”
“The actual money being mine. I was so stressed out about my mom and my aunt and my aunt mom and all this other shit. I didn’t think about the actual money and what it would mean for me. What is wrong with me?”
“You’re under a lot of stress and you just lost someone very close to you. It’s not like you won the lottery or got luck [sic] at the slots.”
“Do you play piano?” she asked, abruptly changing the subject.
“Will you play something for me after dinner?”
“What movie are we roleplaying? Pretty Woman or Twilight?”
“Actually, another one of my favorites. The Oscar award-winning hit You’re Sleeping Alone Tonight, Chump.”
“Available now on Blu-ray and Redbox.”
Everyone in town is supportive of their marriage, but Xeni and Mason try to keep their parents and Xeni’s friends from finding out, and offering unsolicited opinions about love and money. The setup for Xeni has the potential to be emotionally intense, but was actually very relaxing to read. Xeni and Mason are capable of communicating about their feelings and needs, even when it’s awkward or hard. They both actively court one another and easily fall in love, smoothing away their insecurities but not the inconvenience of living 3000 miles apart. Their response to potential obstacles are either supremely chill or proportional to their circumstances; either way they’re never unnecessarily reactive or angsty. Subplots are preemptively resolved long before they overstayed their welcome, or reached a stressful boiling point. This sometimes meant potential conflicts didn’t get a deep airing, but in most cases they were still resolved satisfyingly.
The one exception is Xeni’s relationship with her mother, Joyce. Xeni spends the first half of the book frustrated with her mother’s controlling tendencies and disinterest in Xeni’s feelings about Sable and her secret adoption. Xeni tolerates Joyce’s obsession with Sable’s supposed hoarding of family heirlooms, but I was ready for Xeni to sell everything on eBay just to spite her mom. The book slowly reveals the history of Joyce’s feud with Sable, including Joyce’s insistence that Sable hide the truth of Xeni’s parentage. Joyce responds to Xeni’s reasonable anger with gaslighting (pretending nothing is wrong), threats (to ignore her boundaries and fly out to NY) and disappointment (in Xeni’s marriage). Xeni doesn’t know exactly how she ended up in Joyce’s care as a baby, and by the second half of the story I was ready for Xeni to finally air her grievances, get some answers, and receive some well-deserved groveling. None of this happens. Instead, Xeni reconciles with her Mom after minimal discussion, and secondhand information from relatives. She never gets answers directly from Joyce, and doesn’t even push her by asking questions. This 180 wasn’t unrealistic, but it was confusing and unsatisfying.
I did love Xeni’s unwavering acceptance of her adoptive parents as her “real parents” as she ultimately accepts a lifetime of her mother’s actions as proof of her love. Once her mom arrives on the scene, Xeni starts referring to her inheritance as “ours” and seems content to let her mom be an equal participant in all decisions, which isn’t something I felt Joyce had earned by her behavior. I enjoyed seeing the close relationship between the two, but this storyline felt unfinished. The book’s only other flaws are a slow start and the typo, above.
Weatherspoon’s heroines sometimes have a studied slanginess and performative thirst that is entertaining, but not always perfectly aligned with their characters. For Xeni, her raunchy self-confidence is an ideal match for her blustering about wanting a lover who will blow her back out. Her defiant swagger and moments of insecurity are disarmingly appealing. Some readers might be distracted by her cursing—fuck appears 99 times in Xeni—but it never bothered me.
I also loved how Mason’s size was described. He’s big ALL over and I’m talking about his round belly, not whatever you’re thinking. I don’t read many Fat/plus-sized heroes and Xeni made me want more. Mason’s size is part of his sex appeal, he’s described as “a man who did not skip leg day or a meal,” but we also see how he’s adapted to a world not built for him. Xeni notices this when they first meet with her aunt’s lawyers.
Mason grabbed the back of the closest chair, then clearly had second thoughts as he pushed it back in. The width of the chair’s arms were not enough for him to sit comfortably. And that was if he could fit his legs under the table.
“I’ll stand if you don’t mind.”
“Fine by me,” Mr. Barber said as he nodded in Xeni’s direction.
She cleared her throat, a frown clouding her face. “Is there somewhere we can go where Mason can sit?”
“Oh, um,” Mr. Barber froze. The town was smaller than a gnat. Xeni doubted that he hadn’t had seen Mason around, at the very least. He should have known that the cramped conference room wouldn’t accommodate him.
“Don’t worry about it, love. I’m fine. Plenty of headroom up here.” Xeni noted the high ceilings, but it still didn’t make it okay.
“Whatever makes you comfortable.”
Mason dipped his chin, then crossed his arms over his broad chest. The muscles of his forearms were kind of distracting, but she forced her eyes back in Mr. Barber’s direction.
Mason and Xeni both appear as secondary characters in other books, but Xeni works well as a stand-alone; I hadn’t read the book Mason first appears in, and it didn’t keep me from adoring him. He and Xeni have something for everyone: they’re child-free, musical, prone to pithy observations about race, and enjoy pegging. Beards are not my thing, but readers who enjoy them will find solid beard porn in the many dirty sex scenes Xeni contains. I also want to shout out how grief was naturally woven into the story. Xeni and Mason’s grieving is acknowledged by other characters and mentioned in passing without taking focus away from their sweet sweet loving. I think Xeni might be good to read as a distraction while grieving because it’s fun, but normalizes grief.
Marriages of convenience are a favorite trope of mine, and Xeni is one of the best and fluffiest contemporary romance examples that I’ve read in years. Modern romances often embed these marriages in warring dynasties or mob factions. In Xeni, family dynamics are hazily referenced and remain mostly out of sight, letting Mason and Xeni’s swoony romance shine, and making this a low-anxiety read. The flaws were minor, and didn’t keep me from begging friends to read it so we could sigh over our favorite moments together. The book’s conflicts are external to the relationship, which means when given a chance to fuck up, these lovebirds actually talked to each other instead. I fell for both of these characters, and loved how they brought out the best in each other. This will definitely be going on my reread shelf.