My best friend and favorite bookstagrammer, Paige, recently asked if I would join her for a “buddy-read” of a fiction novel with a chronically ill main character. Paige even offered to send it to my home address, free of charge. I love my best friend, fiction, and diverse representation. I also appreciate not needing to leave my home because that requires putting on pants.
Honestly, it was probably the best deal I’ll receive in this lifetime. The catch: it was a romance novel.
No, I’m not a neanderthal or a snob. I am actually a sucker for romance! I just … struggle with romance plots that aren’t Victorian era. I even struggle with some VR (Victorian Romance) because, you know, I prefer character equality, communication, and diversity.
In fact, that’s how Paige hooked me on the book. Get a Life Chloe Brown is a rowdy, realistic romance from the perspectives of a chronically ill black woman and a rough-around-the-edges pasty ginger artist. In the real world, chronically ill people aren’t seen as fully human. We don’t have lives, much less love lives; And black women are so often under-treated and marginalized in medical communities that chronic diagnoses are withheld, regardless of symptoms. Pair that with the beautiful mind of author, Talia Hibbert, and you have one hell of a romance novel.
Writing Modern Romance and Healthier Relationships
I thought Hibbert toed a fine line between expecting your partner to fix/make you and being able to compliment and improve one another. I liked this. There was a balance between steamy (I mean, very steamy) romance and honest vulnerability. It made the relationship between Chloe and Red feel tangible and earnest rather than suffocating and edgy.
That said, the sex scenes are so graphic! At first I was affronted. As a words/quality time person, I felt left out of the text during the steamier scenes. I couldn’t identify with that kind of sex. I don’t think that’s a missed mark on the author’s part as much as my personal preferences.
I don’t know that the deeper meaning in Red and Chloe’s relationship would have made such an impact without the shock factor of Hibbert’s language. As the characters’ relationship deepens, I Hibbert mixes language of deep love and deep lust, capturing the duality of human romantic fascination.
IRL romance offers the part of us that hungers for the other person and wants to rip their clothes off, and another part (the arguably sustaining part that makes) “the hunger to rip said person’s clothes off” worth it, time after time. It’s that hunger to be inside their brain and understand how they work and all the idiosyncrasies that you love about them because if you know how they work, you might just figure out how to work that way and be better yourself. These equal parts love and lust, they flow into each other and fuel each other and it’s so real and healthy! So, I think Hibbert really just wove true connection, love, and physical touch together in this piece.
Around page 210, I stopped reading and texted Paige, “Like, I’m uncomfortable with it but I’m also shocked by how realistically and beautifully Hibbert writes [romance]. Like, I don’t like the details but the delivery is primo.” My inner valley-girl aside, I think this sums up my opinion of Get a Life Chloe Brown.
Hibbert wrote notable characteristics of healthy relationships beyond the sex scenes. For example, all real couples flirt via email. I’ve decided it. (Just kidding!) Bust seriously, relationships need ample healthy doses of communication and humor. Email is a nerdy and textual way of fulfilling that need and it was consistent with the “Chloe” and “Red” personalities.
Red’s Relationship Abuse and Chloe’s Response
Kelly: As the child of an abusive father and ex of an abusive partner, it is difficult for me to think clearly about Red’s backstory. There is a lot of pain, guilt, and self-doubt in abuse. The abused person will always ask themselves how they have earned the wrath of the person they love. “What did I do to deserve this? IS something wrong with me.” It is made even more difficult when you know you are human, fallible, imperfect, and have made mistakes in your relationship. Hibbert wrote Red as a man who felt all of these things. He was in recovery, but he couldn’t help but hide from the world the way Chloe did after her illness. They had both been hurt by the things and people they looked to for love.
Red’s story of abuse is sometimes as difficult to capture as Chloe’s story of diversity. Men who are abused in their relationships are underrepresented. They are not cared for. Their community tells them to “get over it,” and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” (literally an impossible feat, by the way, as they would be standing in their boots and tugging upward on them, attempting to hover in the air like a regular Houdini). But Red’s abuse was raw and inescapable. It was in the reader’s face as much as it was in his. It is heartbreaking and gut-wrenching that anyone — especially a person as compassionate, sensitive, and kind as Red — would have to retrain their own mind to see themselves as something other than the garbage their abuser convinced them they are. Hibbert doesn’t shy away from writing this. She embraces it. And she embraces the power within Red — within any victim — to overcome.
Equally important, Hibbert wrote Chloe and Red’s best mate as a compassionate people invested in Red and his well-being. I think this is what makes the fictional relationship between Red and Chloe so real (and healthy!). Chloe listens to Red, she aches for Red, she reminds him that he is a stellar artist, a brilliant man, and a worthwhile person. She was also a mature enough person to recognize when Red’s survival instinct took control of his rational thought, and patient enough to help him work through it. She was tough though her compassion. It isn’t always easy for Chloe, but it is always worth it.
Paige: This past year, I’ve read a lot of romance. The genre as a whole is doing some really great things and tackling difficult subjects. I’ve read quite a few where the main female character has suffered some form of abuse, whether that’s gas lighting, sexual abuse, phyiscal abuse, or any other type of mental abuse.
What I really appreciated about “Get a Life, Chloe Brown” was that it demonstrated that in abusive relationships, the man isn’t always the aggressor. This is something people don’t usually think about and it’s important to give all victims a voice, so I thought it was extremely important that Red represented the male perspective of being the one abused in this instance. It also opened up a healthy conversation between Chloe and Red to help demonstrate how past abuse can affect your relationships with others.
For me, Chloe did a good job more often than not in the way she kept in mind his past struggles when Red would act a certain way. She was patient with him and tried to see things through his perspective. One of the lines I absolutely loved was, “Red,’ she whispered. ‘You don’t always have to be okay.’ She leaned closer and pressed a kiss to his cheek. He was still for a moment. But then he looked at her, and smiled, and murmured, “I know. But I am okay, with you.”
Wrap It Up
All in all, I think Hibbert wrote a fun, snarky, relatable romance with diverse, under-represented character demographics, character growth, and healthy, (sometimes steamy) relationships. With a gripping intro, “Interesting things always seem to happen on Tuesdays,” and quippy one-liners like, ““she hid guilt about as well as the average family dog,” she keeps the reader’s attention and pushes them to grow even as they delight in the throes of romance.
If you want to read more about our thoughts on chronic illness representation in Get a Life, Chloe Brown, check out Paige’s blog.