In recent years whenever the winter holidays begin to roll around, I find myself turning to romance, watching those cheesy Christmas romances on the Hallmark channel and reading a bunch of romance novels (which for me usually means just two). That was the case in 2022. And because I’d been battling reading slumps throughout the year, I was more than happy to be reading, interested in, and completing the two romance books I picked up, How to Fail at Flirting being one of them.
When her flailing department lands on the university’s chopping block, Professor Naya Turner’s friends convince her to shed her frumpy cardigan for an evening on the town. For one night her focus will stray from her demanding job and she’ll tackle a new kind of to-do list. When she meets a charming stranger in town on business, he presents the perfect opportunity to check off the items on her list. Let the guy buy her a drink. Check. Try something new. Check. A no-strings-attached hookup. Check… almost.
Jake makes her laugh and challenges Naya to rebuild her confidence, which was left toppled by her abusive ex-boyfriend. Soon she’s flirting with the chance at a more serious romantic relationship — except nothing can be that easy. The complicated strings around her dating Jake might destroy her career.
Naya has two options. She can protect her professional reputation and return to her old life, or she can flirt with the unknown and stay with the person who makes her feel like she’s finally living again. (Goodreads)
I remember this book being quite popular when it was just published but because I don’t read much romance, I didn’t pay attention to it. I began reading it in December simply because it was available at my library and I thought why not read another romance book featuring a professor — since I’d just completed Kissing Galileo by Penny Reid. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the fun read I was hoping for. I became so annoyed with the plot and the characters that I was tempted to give up on the story.
There’s not much good — at least not for me. The story lured me in with its light tone, and thinking I would get a light, fun romance to match my happy mood for the holidays, I willingly went along with it.
I liked that the protagonist is a biracial Black woman and that she’s an adjunct professor. Because of that, we get some insight into the anxiety adjuncts have about their job, especially as they seek tenure — and the additional tasks they have to do to secure tenureship in addition to applying for it (e.g., volunteer for committees, publish a lot).
When the protagonist, Naya (“like papaya” — I liked that too; it’s cute), meets Jake (a White dude) and they almost had a one-night stand, I was committed to the story as I found that funny and was curious to see how things would play out. But things began to get shaky shortly after that and then slowly began to go downhill for me.
Ugh, there are so many bad, which I’m still surprised by because the story started out so promising. Back in those early pages, I even paused to look up more romances by the author to keep my romance mood going. But, alas, it all came crashing down.
The first thing that annoyed me was Jake, or rather how Naya thinks of Jake. Jake got a raw deal in his relationship with Naya. I both pitied him and was annoyed by how he’s presented. I pitied him because he gives a lot of himself to Naya but receives very little in return. And I was annoyed by how he’s presented because he’s often compared to Naya’s abusive ex-boyfriend, Davis (or something like that). Jake is presented as THE perfect man. He’s sensitive and attentive and great in bed and encouraging and… all the things a woman would want in a man. His one flaw is that he has a wife he didn’t tell Naya about, which turned out not to be much of a flaw since he’s separated from his wife, going through the divorce process, and his wife is horrible anyway.
Now maybe I wouldn’t have had a problem with this if it wasn’t so glaringly obvious that he was being presented as Mr. Perfection — or was constantly compared to Davis, the asshole abusive ex. But being stuck in Naya’s head with these thoughts made Jake unappealing to me.
And that’s the source of all the bad about this book — being stuck in Naya’s head. A break from her thoughts would have been refreshing and would have been great in providing more dimension to her character by giving us a different opinion on the issues she’s trying to tackle alone. A source of all those issues is the abuse she suffered in her previous relationship, which I understand. It’s very obvious that Naya needs help, even if it’s just to talk to someone about her experience, but it takes her a while to admit this and seek that help. And I don’t have an issue with that. What I do have a problem with is that we are stuck in her head as she struggles to realize and act on this. Because of that and because Davis pops up again and begins harassing her, the story became weightier than I’d expected. I was lured in by a promise of something light and fun, but while that was the general tone, there was a heavier, darker undercurrent that I really was NOT in the mood for. I mean, yeah, an abusive ex is mentioned in the synopsis, but I didn’t expect all that to play such a big role in the story or weigh it down.
And it’s not like I couldn’t have adapted to reading such a story. I could have gone along with a story about a woman coming to terms with having been abused and working through the effects of it if the story had committed to that plot thread, but it didn’t. Instead, the resolution to that major plotline was rushed at the end leaving me feeling bereft of a satisfying conclusion. I was still reeling from Davis’s constant harassment (threatening Naya with compromising photos he has of her) and many mentions of his past abuse (which includes having posted such compromising photos on websites and physical, emotionally, and mentally abusing her) leading up to an attempted rape, which I REALLY hate was used as a climax to the story (if I had a physical copy, I’d have thrown it across the room at that point).
It was difficult to read the parts leading up to the attempted rape. I especially had difficulty reading the part where Davis kept talking over Naya at the group meeting at the camp site while she kept trying to communicate telepathically (she doesn’t have powers, but I don’t know how else she expected Jake to know what the hell she’s thinking) to Jake that Davis was being an asshole. I had to take MANY breaks here because it was SO frustrating to read. From this scene, it seems that Naya wants to be saved from her situation and wants Jake to be her savior. I don’t know if this was apparent throughout the story, but I didn’t realize until this scene. Prior to this, she kept telling her very side character friends, who greatly lack any development (which I didn’t mind back when I was gung-ho for light, fun romance for Christmas because I liked those friends and wish they were more included in the story), that she would sort out her problems alone — although she did not make any effort to do so (which I didn’t mind at first thinking that the story would follow along when she did get around to addressing and working through her stuff).
There’s a lot more I could say, but I don’t want to do a rant. I just want to share what didn’t work for me, another of which is that the story left me with a lot of questions, and not in a good way (wanting more story, possibly another book). It’s just that Naya seems not to have any help at all, as if her friends know nothing about her abusive relationship with Davis. I could accept this if the story had committed to presenting it that way, but sometimes it seems that her friends and even the chair of her department had some idea about what happened and what Naya is still going through. I wasn’t clear on that and was quite confused.
Anyway, I’ll stop here.
Overall: ★☆☆☆☆ ½
It started out good because it was light and fun and exactly what I was looking for, but then it threw in some heavier, more serious stuff that weren’t adequately explored or resolved, which made me dislike the whole thing.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
I can’t recommend this one.
9 thoughts on ““How to Fail at Flirting” by Denise Williams”
Hmm thank you for telling me to skip this.
Definitely sounds like a miss and something to stay away from hahah Thanks for warning us and suffering through it for us! 😀
Lol! Yea man. Hard miss. Not worth it.
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What a shame – looks like it was marketed poorly and had more serious concerns in it than it appeared or the author fell between two stools when writing it and muddied the whole thing. What a shame, esp given the somewhat diverse cast!
It started out pretty good. Such a letdown.
Sounds like one to safely miss!
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I am sorry this wasn’t the funny and satisfying reading it was expected to be! I thought that the synopsis was interesting but… I think I would have the same problems you had with it so I’ll pass!
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Yea, it started out good but went downhill.