The following is a mostly spoiler free review, but if you consider whether the two characters end up together at the end as a spoiler, then there are spoilers ahead and you have been warned.
When Jess starts her new analyst job at Goldman Sachs, the first face she sees belongs to Josh, notorious devil’s advocate from the Supreme Court Topics class she took senior year. He was the worst, and now, he’s her assigned mentor at work where she’s the only Black woman on the floor.
Things are not really fine in Cecilia Rabess’ debut “Everything’s Fine.” The book is set in 2016. When I read the pitch for this book (liberal Black woman falls in love with former section a–hole, conservative white dude), I was skeptical, but Rabess had me hooked with her writing. “Everything’s Fine” is an easy book to fly through in a day but not an easy book to unpack.
The novel follows a typical rom-com structure: there’s chemistry accompanied by some will-they-won’t-they, they get together, there’s a third act break up, and they end up together. But Josh, while sweet at times (he gives up eating strawberries because Jess is allergic), doesn’t change. This is not a second chance romance about a reformed devil’s advocate.
Josh fundamentally believes the same things he did in college. And even as he falls in love with Jess, he either willfully ignores or actively explains away the systemic racism that’s a very real part of her experience whether it be in corporate America or just regular life as Trump campaigns for president.
There have been a lot of negative reviews on Goodreads, many of which are from people who haven’t read the book. To be sure, we are not wanting for stories about BIPOC women who fall for high-key-terrible-but-sometimes-sweet white men: “The Mindy Project,” (see also most of Mindy Kahling’s work), “Free Food for Millionaires,” etc, and it’s fair to ask the question if this is the kind of representation we want in the world. But it’s unreasonable to expect that BIPOC characters will always make good romantic decisions. The marketing for this book (not the author’s fault!) has been a little questionable at times (many have seized on “she’s Black, he’s white; she’s liberal, he’s conservative; she thinks he’s a racist jerk, he finds her extremely immature” which is a big yikes. For the record, the materials I received were fine and didn’t contain this copy).
But “Everything’s Fine” has a mundane horror element that I can’t get out of my head, and many of those pointing out that Josh is terrible and racist are missing the point. The summary on the back of the book will tell you as much: it’s “a novel that doesn’t just ask will they, but…should they?” And if that doesn’t do it, look at the comps (comparative titles). The front cover blurb is from Zakiya Dalila Harris, author of “The Other Black Girl,” a “Stepford Wives”/”Get Out” style thriller about a woman named Nella (the only Black employee at her publishing house) who is undermined at work by the new hire Hazel who is also Black. From cover to cover (literally), the novel is screaming at you not to read this as a feel good rom-com.
“Everything’s Fine” is a story about falling in love with the wrong person and the limits of that love. It feels a lot more like the relationship in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” than any romance novel I’ve read. That being said, it’s a hard read. Josh is a finance bro who doesn’t understand why his friends’ support of Trump is a big deal. When Jess pursues her passion and finds work that is really meaningful to her later on in the book, Josh undermines and belittles her work both in public by not backing her up in front of his friends and in private through their conversations. The racism can be such a turn-off at times that some readers may find the couple a little unbelievable, and I could definitely understand a reader, especially a BIPOC reader, not wanting to subject themselves to that.
But Rabess has penned a thought-provoking story that turns the genre on its head. It’s a book that wrestles with the difficult truth that most racist people in our lives are not purely hateful. They’re friends, neighbors, classmates, and yes, sometimes, lovers.