WANNA BET? is a story filled with British talk and best-friend banter, supportive friends, some light-hearted gambling (no destructive, life-crushing, dark aspects of gambling; just an occasional rolling of dice for little moments fun) and lots of incredible, playful, engaging sex.
I was ELECTRIC with joy over this book before I'd even read a word of it. My heart would not stop beaming. Look at this glorious cover! Look at this girl with hair like mine! And I was excited to read it for what it promised to be: A best-friends-to-lovers romance with forced proximity between two British people of colour. So many things I love! All at once! A rare and beautiful thing.
I expected WANNA BET? to be captivating, steamy, to feature a protagonatist I could relate to more than usual. I did not expect to feel so thoroughly thrilled by the dynamic representation it provides! The heroine, Jasmine, is Black British; and the hero (Rahul) is British South Asian. Their story is told with narratives from both of their perspectives, and some flashbacks in between. Nuanced depictions of people of colour are entwined with the beautifully-written story in way that never feels forced or added on as a second-thought. It's a gorgeous, sexy book about lasting love, learning to accept help and choosing to stay.
Pushing through the beginning of the book required a bit of convincing myself that there was surely deliciousness coming. It opens with a flashback to Jasmine as a kid with an absent, unkind mother --which I did not expect. It then takes us to two present-day scenes: a conversation Jasmine has with a friend who's thinking about getting into a relationship and a scene depicting Jasmine's irritation and judgment of her (admittedly, wildly irritating) flatmate. But the unexpected start was absolutely worth the wait to get to the first heart-fluttering introduction of Rahul! Rahul who is loyal and genuinely kind and sweet and good, and loves Jas so much it's become a part of who he is.
Rahul, who Jas calls so that she doesn't have to turn to her father's money to rescue her from her now-damaged and totally uninhabitable apartment. Rahul, who knows Jas is strong and capable and doesn't need saving, even when she is crying in his car and he doesn't know why. Rahul, who has loved Jas for seven years and had sex with her once, at the very beginning of their relationship, exactly five minutes before they agreed to never do it again because he wanted to see her again and Jas told him that she "doesn't shag her friends."
From the day he first sees her in the library, Rahul is so struck by Jasmine's sex appeal and mystery that he finds himself entirely unsure of what he's doing but committed to finding a way to keep talking to her. As their story unfolds, we find that Jasmine finds herself in a very similar position. Jasmine's fun-loving, bet-making, spontaneous personality perfectly balances out Rahul's life of reliability, discipline and control.
The darker themes explored in Jas and Rahul's story --grief, alcohol dependency, the loss of a parent, feeling abandoned and unworthy of lasting love-- feel rooted in reality, but don't weigh it down. It's 75000 words that are as sweet and strong as Jas and Rahul are. She is adorable; he is adoring. They are good to each other, and for each other. Their friendship is filled with laughter, and scattered with moments where they allow each other to see the fractured parts of themselves they usually hide. They bet on raindrops, with m&ms and a worn-out deck of cards; they play to win their favourite food from the other's parent.
The Amazon blurb includes the phrase "And in this game of desire, Rahul is determined to win." but I don't agree with that portrayal of his character's intentions. There is no manipulation or elaborate scheme to get Jas to sleep with him, or even to fall in love with him. I am super uncomfortable with the deceit and false pretenses in stories where boys are 'playing the long game' and waiting in the wings for the girl's relationship to fall apart or spending years trying to prove to her that he's the man she's always needed. Rahul's intentions and actions don't come across that way at all. He loves her with a loyalty, generosity and kindness that is inherent in him, with no expectation of her giving him anything in return. But he does want her, and it weighs him down in the quiet corners of himself where he tries to convince himself to stop wanting her, and he carries the burden of hope flickering in his heart every time he sees a flash of desire in her eyes.
WANNA BET? has shown me what romance written by women depicting women can be. Jas is a truly confident women who has lots of casual sex and it's never an issue. She has a belly, tiny boobs, stretch marks all over her thighs, and dark, curly pubic hair. She wears ordinary cotton underwear throughout the whole book. And we discover those things from Rahul. It's shared without romanticising or fetishizing any part of her; just naturally through his narration of enjoying intimate moments with the woman he loves. To me, that's exactly what representation should be and why it matters. It's made me rethink every book written by a woman that I've ever read. It's made me wanna read everything else Talia Hibbert has written.
Content Warnings: grief, parental neglect and abandonment, parental death, alcohol dependence, restrictive eating, excessive exercise, scars, blood, gambling.