Mystery Men

In the world of romance novels, mistaken identity is still sexy

Falling in love with someone you can’t see is a hallowed literary trope, the stuff of Greek myths and fairy tales. Almost equally ancient is the romance of mistaken identity—a cocktail of comedy and pathos deftly exploited by Shakespeare and Shaw, Cyrano de Bergerac and The Scarlet Pimpernel. In the age of dating apps, online avatars, and identity theft, the secret or borrowed identity finds fresh traction in three new romance novels.

Spoiler Alert

Spoiler Alert

Olivia Dade’s Spoiler Alert is a set in the mirror world of fandom, fanfic, and cosplaying. Gods of the Gates is a Game of Thrones-like fantasy television series loosely based on a series of bestselling novels, which are in turn loosely based on The Aeneid. Frustrated with his character’s arc, the show’s Aeneas, hunky actor Marcus Caster-Rupp, secretly writes brooding fanfic under the handle “Book!AeneasWouldNever” and bonds with an online fan community—especially cosplayer and fellow fanfic author April Whittier, a.k.a. “Unapologetic Lavinia Stan.”

IRL, April is a redheaded, plus-size geologist who may ogle Marcus onscreen but would never fall for his carefully constructed dumb-jock persona. She proves it when a viral Tweet brings them together for a publicity stunt of a dinner date: “His muscles were still rather impressive face-to-face, and he was very polite, and his hair was thick and golden in the candlelight, but Jesus, the tedium.”

Marcus, in turn, is drawn to April’s intelligence and curves, but terrified that she’ll see through his beefcake bluster, especially when he discovers that the smart, sassy stranger is his online BFF. “She made a goddamn living spearing through surfaces and discovering what lay underneath, and he wanted to remain undiscovered.” He’s plagued not just by personal insecurities stemming from his dyslexia, but by a confidentiality clause that could get him fired from Gods of the Gates if the showrunners find out about his online activities. While April delights in make-believe, Marcus can’t be authentic with her until he sheds several layers of pretense.

Dade affectionately skewers the fantasy genre and fanfic in general. She intersperses the story with excerpts from the characters’ hilariously horny fics, the baroque prose of the Gates of the Gods novels, the cast members’ long-running group chat, and the terrible scripts of the movies Marcus has made between shooting seasons. These include Manmaid (“about a half-human sea creature cursed to love a woman allergic to kelp”). There’s also Do-Si-Danger (in which he played “an arrogant, high-powered executive and accidental bystander to a gangland murder who assumed a new witness-protection identity and found ill-fated romance among homespun square dancers”), and Lindy Hope (“the inspirational—if entirely fictional—story of how swing dancing turned the tide of one World War II battle”). It’s tremendously fun, but Dade doesn’t sugarcoat serious discussions about dyslexia and fat-shaming in fandoms (and families).

Well Played

Romance

In Well Played, Jen DeLuca’s sequel to Well Met, a tipsy texting mishap leads Renaissance Faire tavern wench Stacey Lindholm into an online flirtation with Dex MacLean, a hunky, kilted guitarist who tours the Faire circuit with his Irish folk band. Or so she thinks. It soon becomes clear—to the reader, if not to Stacey—that she’s actually sexting his cousin, Daniel, the band’s mild-mannered manager. While the setup echoes Cyrano de Bergerac, DeLuca doesn’t romanticize the horrors of modern dating. As Stacey points out: “In this century we don’t go straight for a Cyrano reference. We call it catfishing.”

Of course, Stacey is hiding behind a false identity of her own. Her easy smile and picture-perfect Instagram feed mask her fears over her mother’s precarious health–and her resulting frustration at being stuck in her small hometown caring for her, while her friends (including Simon and Emily, the hero and heroine of Well Met) are getting married, getting pregnant, and generally getting on with their lives. Both Stacey and Daniel have to come clean before their unconventional courtship can lead to an equally unconventional happy ending.

The Roommate

Roommate

In Rosie Danan’s The Roommate, uptight East Coast rich girl Clara Wheaton—who can fold napkins in fourteen different shapes but can’t orgasm—moves to Los Angeles to spend the summer sharing a house with a childhood friend, Everett, secretly hoping to turn her longtime crush into her happily ever after. Not only does she discover that Everett has impulsively sublet his room to a stranger so he can take off on tour with his band, but that stranger has a secret identity of his own. Josh Darling’s boy-next-door charm belies his fame as an “adult performer”—that is, a James Deen-style porn star.

Inevitably, Clara’s curiosity overcomes her natural prudishness. “No matter how hard she tried to distract herself, or how many ‘concentrate’ playlists she made, her mind kept floating back to Josh and his great big . . . occupation. Josh in a skimpy pizza delivery uniform. Josh as a sexy mailman with an extra-large package. The endless possibilities tormented her.” Soon, they’re not just roommates with benefits but business partners, as Clara bankrolls a series of sex-positive education films for women. Along the way, she discovers that, despite his unconventional career path, Josh makes a much better boyfriend than her flaky childhood crush.

Indeed, he’s almost too good to be true, instantly vanquishing Clara’s inhibitions and, with them, any real source of conflict. Instead of exploring their relationship with each other—or with their respective disapproving families—the novel focuses on fighting exploitation in the porn industry. As a result, The Roommate doesn’t quite live up to the originality of its premise, and, much like porn itself, gets numbingly repetitive fast.

Don’t let the cartoonish chick lit covers fool you; these are romances with a capital R. (The Roommate crosses over into erotica.) As much as Renaissance Faires and Comic Cons may seem like quaint relics of a pre-COVID civilization, they prove that the mystery man’s appeal is eternal.

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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