From the husband and wife writing duo Jennifer Miller and Jason Feifer comes Mr. Nice Guy, a funny and all too real comedy about the pursuit of success in life—and love—in today's working world.
Lucas Callahan, a man who gave up his law degree, fiancée and small-town future for a shot at making it in the Big Apple. He snags an entry-level job at Empire magazine, believing it’s only a matter of time before he becomes a famous writer. And then late one night in a downtown bar he meets a gorgeous brunette who takes him home...
Carmen Kelly wanted to be a hard-hitting journalist, only to find herself cast in the role of Empire's sex columnist thanks to the boys' club mentality of Manhattan magazines. Her latest piece is about an unfortunate—and unsatisfying—encounter with an awkward and nerdy guy, who was nice enough to look at but horribly inexperienced in bed.
Lucas only discovers that he’s slept with the infamous Carmen Kelly—that is, his own magazine’s sex columnist!—when he reads her printed take-down. Humiliated and furious, he pens a rebuttal and signs it, "Nice Guy." Empire publishes it, and the pair of columns go viral. Readers demand more. So the magazine makes an arrangement: Each week, Carmen and Lucas will sleep together... and write dueling accounts of their sexual exploits.
It’s the most provocative sexual relationship any couple has had, but the columnist-lovers are soon engaging in more than a war of words: They become seduced by the city’s rich and powerful, tempted by fame, and more attracted to each other than they’re willing to admit. In the end, they will have to choose between ambition, love, and the consequences of total honesty.
***Mr. Nice Guy is tagged as both Romance and Women's Fiction, but I'm going to open this review by telling you that it is not a romance. There is no Happily Ever After. The hero has a relationship with one woman during the book, while he is sleeping with the woman you think is the heroine (for work) and then he ends up with neither of them.
The story follows Lucas, a 24 year old Southern boy fresh off a broken engagement and newly moved to New York City to work as a fact-checker at Empire magazine. One day, he receives an invitation to Editor Jay Jacobsen's (called Jays) office and is ushered into the glamorous, over-the-top NYC media world.
Around this time, Lucas goes to a local pub that was once a writers' scene and ends up going home with a gorgeous woman a few years older than him. Turns out, she's Carmen Kelly, who writes the sex column for Empire... and she writes about him.
In the column, she dubs him "Nice Guy," and mocks him for being so solicitous that she felt she was teaching him what to do, he was not good at it, etc. He writes a rebuttal and sends it to Empire, without giving his name. Reader reaction is so overwhelming that Empire wants to make it a weekly thing and they launch a joint column called "Screw the Critics." Lucas won't tell them who he is, so he isn't getting paid, BUT they get assignments on where and how to have sex.
Now, let's pause a minute. Carmen and Jays had a messy relationship and breakup in which he mostly used her and then used his power to make her keep quiet. Charming, right? Fast forward to now, when he's telling her to have bad sex every week with a specific person. For work. Any alarm bells ringing?
Fine, I said, let's keep going. I'm only 10% into the book, let's see where it goes.
The rest of this review will contain spoilers, so consider this your warning.
Lucas and Carmen write columns for a few weeks that are mainly them being mean to each other. There's hate sex, hate kissing, etc. Carmen is criticized for being unemotional and for taking notes during sex. Lucas is criticized for not being able to read Carmen's mind and for not paying attention to her cues. Fair and also not fair. *shrug*
At one point, Lucas makes a mistake and his friend Sofia finds out that he's Nice Guy. She offers to "teach" him and they embark on a physical relationship. Mind, he's still having sex with Carmen once a week for the column. That wasn't a dealbreaker for me, but I know a lot of people don't like the hero/heroine to sleep with anyone else during the book. Lucas falls in love with Sofia, even though she expressly told him she didn't want a relationship, it was just sex. He takes it very personally and carries his hurt feelings forward into what becomes a friendship and then a real relationship with Carmen.
And then he decides to publicly state his love for her to the whole world. She tries to get him to a more private setting, over and over, while the cameras record and she tries not to lie to him but also not to give up on her whole life. She has a Netflix deal in LA, which not only represents a career change but also an opportunity to escape Jays. Lucas just wants her to agree to be with him. When she doesn't immediately give him what he wants, he reveals her as a fraud (she doesn't have sex constantly and sometimes makes up her columns) and ruins her life. ON CAMERA.
Shivers of heat ran up Carmen's arms. Sweat prickled the back of her neck and her upper lip. This had not happened. Lucas had not exposed her to the world. He had not retaliated against her with flippant, destructive cruelty. Not her lover and best friend.
This is at 78%, what you'd expect to be the Dark Moment of the book. And it is, for sure. But I almost stopped reading again, because I did not want these two together and I'd been told that this was a romantic comedy. (I didn't laugh once in this book. I also didn't want the main couple together. Hmm.)
Lucas is portrayed as painfully naive and optimistic. Over and over, though, I was reminded that he's 24-25 during the book. He's old enough to have a job and apartment and a college degree. If he was a woman, he would be expected to be more socially aware by now out of self-preservation. If he was a Black man, he'd be shot for half of the things he does. I'm simply unable to sit in his POV for so long without drowning in his sense of entitlement. Why does he go along with Jays? Because he believes he's deserving of the completely unearned praise and privileges Jays gives him. Why does he treat Carmen so terribly when she won't give up her career for him? Because he thinks she's the Bad Guy. He wants so badly to be the Nice Guy that he's willing to believe everyone who supports the narrative he's tried to build.
Jays had brought Lucas along to 'show support,' which meant they would appear and shake some hands. Lucas liked this; his mere presence was supportive.
There's a subplot with a scummy character, Nicholas Spragg, who is trying to buy himself into the NYC social scene. Early in the book, Lucas and Nicholas go out on a drug and alcohol bender with two "socialites." Everyone but Lucas (including me, the reader) can tell that they are sex workers. Lucas wakes up unaware of what happened the night before. It's really icky. At one point, Jays asks Lucas to write a profile on Nicholas, and Lucas jumps on the chance. Eventually, he's tipped off that Spragg tried to rape a girl in college and Lucas has this exchange with himself:
After the way last night ended, he wasn't sure what to think of Nicholas. The guy was much seedier than he'd thought. And weirder. And creepier! But a rapist? That seemed hard to -
Lucas stopped himself. This is how rapists get away with it, he thought. Nobody's willing to believe that the guy they know is a rapist. And yet why would Nicholas rape someone when he clearly had no hang-ups about just paying someone for sex? Wouldn't that just be -
Lucas stopped himself. He was doing it again.
Lucas then goes to ask the girl and finds out that yes, Nicholas is a total shitbag. He writes up the profile and sends it off to Empire, where it never sees the light of day. Does Lucas call Jays out on this? Not until 90% through the book. Does he do anything else? No. This is at the 49% mark and I read the rest of the book waiting for something, ANYthing to happen. Imagine reading this book during the Kavanaugh hearings and tell me you're not setting your hair on fire with incandescent rage.
In summary, Lucas is not, in fact, a nice guy. Maybe he's a "Nice Guy," but he's a garbage person for much of the book. If I'm going to rate a romance highly, I have to at least want the couple to be together. I did not. By the time Lucas realizes how awful he's been, it's about 85% of the way through the book and a year into the narrative. He deserves to do a couple of years of therapy and a lot of work before he can deserve Carmen. And that's sort of what we get? Lucas enrolls in journalism school and tries to separate himself from the avarice and ambition he'd been caught up in. Is he successful? I don't know. We know that he volunteers at a law firm to help out Carmen's grandmother. We know that he's still in graduate school when he runs into Carmen at her book launch, two years after they last see each other. That's it. That's the end.
The authors do a good job of depicting the absurd double standard in our culture, of the ways in which Carmen was immediately thrown under the bus not just by Lucas but by Jays, by the media, and by pretty much everyone. In my opinion, the book would have had a happier ending if Carmen had simply gone off and had a fabulous career and left Lucas in his own mess.
For better or worse, the narrative is mostly from Lucas's point of view, however, which means we need to see his happy ending, not hers. Maybe that's why this book didn't work for me. This book reads like Women's Fiction for Men. Men's Fiction. Man gets to go around NYC and have instant success, fuck multiple beautiful women, then screw up bigtime before becoming the hero and exposing a Bad Guy.
Content Warnings: Mention of sexual assault, drug use, manipulation, slut-shaming, misogyny
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review purposes.