A mix of noble purposes combined with TERRIBLE framing. The most interesting aspects of character are hopelessly diminished by inconsistent and, at times, offensive portrayals of women and race.
Coming back to a series after a long break can be tough. So when Gabby and I decided to read the latest installment in the Chicago Stars series by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (SEP) [ T | F | W ] we definitely had some reservations. And not just because it has the actual worst title ever, First Star I See Tonight? Please.
It should be said that we were both coming at this series from different places.
I’ve always enjoyed SEP’s books but tend to feel let down by her endings. Plus, all my knowledge of NFL comes from the greatest football movie of all time, The Game Plan (2007) [ Amz | iT ] starring The Rock.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Stars series holds some serious nostalgia for Gabby. Plus she has this critically engaged ‘my fav is problematic’ kind of love for SEP as an author.
What all this boils down to is … we have to share the blame this time around. We chose to read First Star I See Tonight by mutual agreement, and we both came to regret it. Pretty quickly, actually.
RUDI: So… have YOU started the SEP? Coz I just did and ?
GABBY: Oh no. Not yet.
GABBY: Okay I’m starting now. And just stressing once again how much I used to love this series. Naturally, age and maturity has shown me that my youthful love may have been misplaced … also the name of this book is ridiculous.
GABBY: Oh my god I hate him already? His internal monologue is infuriating. But yeah, that’s probably deliberate.
GABBY: Mmmm, I love some subtle misogyny so early in the morning.
RUDI: ‘She didn’t like judging other members of her sex, but she patently HATED anything that denoted femininity. Because girls are gross and vapid and bad at sports. Well, girls who weren’t like her. Because she wasn’t like other girls.’
GABBY: This is what I realise now is typical of old school romance and SEP.
RUDI: I hold out hope this book will come around because cameos from past heroines, and doesn’t Phoebe OWN Chicago Stars? Like at this point she, at least, would be well practiced in smacking people down for their bs attitude about women in football.
RUDI: Meanwhile, did I tell you that an ACTUAL Nigerian prince emailed me and asked for my help? All I have to do is send him $5000 and in a few weeks he’ll repay me PLUS INTEREST! ???
GABBY: ? My sweet summer child.
RUDI: I know. And it’s almost worse that I know I’m being naive. ?
GABBY: So I’m definitely not that far into it but I’m struggling to maintain interest because I’m not intrigued enough to be okay about being in the dark about why she’s following him.
GABBY: I just want to know.
RUDI: I’m struggling too. All these vague references to ‘her client’. It is not intriguing, it is only annoying.
GABBY: Would you forgive a racist their racism just because they were old?
RUDI: I literally just read that bit. And no. I might not make a big thing of it with them. BUT you can bet my friends know that I’m furious about it and that I’m furious with myself for not fighting it.
RUDI: Amber not venting to Piper is a flashing light that Amber doesn’t trust her.
GABBY: Yeah or Amber is poorly developed because she’s ‘slightly overweight’ and that makes her meek and inhibited. Remember these books and their weight issues (see The Great Escape).
RUDI: Oh! An her porcelain skin! Did you notice that she has porcelain skin? She might be Korean but don’t worry guys, she doesn’t have dark skin.
GABBY: So gross sometimes. Not one person of colour … in Chicago ………….
GABBY: Sorry. Non-porcelain person of colour.
GABBY: So it’s boring and offensive. This book is not gripping me.
RUDI: I’m really struggling too. It’s too meh for a good hate-read and trying too hard to be zaney for me to straight up enjoy?
RUDI: Like it made sense for Blue, and Molly, and even Annabelle to be kinda flighty. That was character driven. Mostly. Arguably. And I could still believe that when they wanted to be serious, with things like their careers, they could and would get shit done. But I totally don’t understand who Piper is supposed to be? She’s so inconsistent. Plus I can’t help shake the feeling that she’s only accidentally good at her job? Like the way Stephanie Plum tends to be?
RUDI: Oh! And I genuinely have zero fucks to give about the dude. Z E R O. I know who he is and I don’t like him and I would like another hero please. Maybe the dude who wears the foam cheesehead?
GABBY: God yes, I’m exactly the same. He’s heaps boring. And too old to be opening a nightclub. This doesn’t have the charm of those early Chicago Stars.
GABBY: Piper isn’t a real person. She’s saying all the things that are meant to be appealing about a heroine but she’s missing the mark, eg ‘When did I ever care about being feminine?’ The whole setup should be interesting. Private eye looking to reestablish her family business. But I’m sooooo bored by everything about this book. And I find Berni really offensive and not in an endearing way. I don’t think that bigots should be seen as cute and idiosyncratic tbh.
GABBY: Oh fuck, she’s really driving this tomboy stuff home. It’s not subversive when a girl likes sport. Girls like sports all the effing time.
RUDI: Do they though? Or do they just say they do so boys will like them? ??
GABBY: Clearly the latter. That’s why sports romances are so popular … because we want to impress boys.
GABBY: It’s actually really interesting what SEP is doing now that I’m reading more. She’s attempting to be super feminist, right? But her feminism is very second wave. Which makes sense considering her online presence. Like when she posted on FB about how uptalk and vocal fry drives her crazy and that young women everywhere are disrespecting themselves with the habit. So pro-women, but very anti-hyperfemme. So Piper verbally says she looooves women. Twice says she’s sad she’s not a lesbian and outright says she likes women more than men. Meanwhile, she is judging every single woman in a short skirt and casting them as bimbos. She derides femininity, and other characters go so far as to call her Mr Piper. So it’s feminism masked as masculinity in its ideal form. Sorry, did I say this was interesting? I meant messed.
RUDI: I found those references to wishing she was a lesbian so problematic in and of themselves. Like, ok straight girl, ‘nough now. You’re actually trivialising queer female sexuality.
RUDI: Piper clearly doesn’t actually mean it, and both times it comes up she’s moaning about not finding a worthwhile man to date. That seems … squicky and diminishing?
GABBY: Completely agree. But again, it also feels as though she’s just masquerading as a dude. Makes sense that Mr Piper would be into ladies.
RUDI: Ha! Fair.
RUDI: Meanwhile, Deirdre seems cool. I would like to lodge my interest in her getting a book, please and thank you.
RUDI: Well, it is certainly not your personality that attracts them Piper because you are blah.
GABBY: There’s an issue when you can tell the author is trying to straddle a world they’re not comfortable in. And for this, it’s that Piper is a relatable, appealing and fun 33-year old.
RUDI: And it’s frustrating because I want to enjoy her pragmatism and cynicism. But it’s been done better elsewhere and here it’s fallen so so flat.
RUDI: Ok. I just hit Chapter Five and what the fuck does ‘ethnically ambiguous’ mean??
RUDI: I actually don’t even know what to do with that term. It feels so gross. No wonder Amber doesn’t trust her enough to confide how much she hates Berni’s racism. Piper is clearly the kind of person who asks people, ‘No, but where are you REALLY from?’
RUDI: And sorry, but is this a good thing Cooper??
RUDI: Nope. Nope. Nope. Gross. Stop. No more.
GABBY: She’s doing it wrong! Don’t even try to maintain old cultural norms but still be ‘trendy’ with your ‘women can be tough too’ schtick. It’s not working.
RUDI: I powered through last night so now I’m at Chapter Eight and … have you hit the thing about Piper being a chauffeur?
GABBY: No! I’ve got fatigue. But I’ll catch up … eventually.
RUDI: I look forward to you catching up coz shit is fucked.
GABBY: Oh no.
RUDI: I hope I’m being overly sensitive but I don’t think I am. Although I am starting to warm up to Piper as long as she isn’t thinking about and/or interacting with race/racism.
GABBY: Lol. I still hate Cooper. Just because a woman is tough doesn’t mean she’s a man! He literally says he wants to show her that he’s better at being a man than her. So fucking weird. But also kinda interesting because maybe he wants to have sex with a dude?
RUDI: I can see that. Like it would be the ultimate assertion of his masculinity.
GABBY: ‘Wanting to be with a woman? How gay is that. You win sex against a man. That’s as straight as it gets.’
RUDI: l o l
GABBY: She’s a chauffeur now. What the fuck. Where did these Middle Eastern princesses come from? Is it an analogy? Is she attempting diversity?
GABBY: OH MY GOD WHAT IS HAPPENING?
GABBY: ‘She never strikes me and I only share my bed with one other servant.’
‘The realm only abolished slavery in 1962.’ Is this a Mills and Boon with fictional Arabian influence?? Is this set in 1980?
GABBY: I’m sensing a white saviour complex coming on.
RUDI: It is right? It’s all a little too ‘poor oppressed Muslim girls’.
Under normal circumstances, this is about the point I’d flag the strong potential for spoilers. Except, for a spoiler to occur there’d actually have to be a coherent plot first.
Seeing as First Star I See Tonight doesn’t really have one, feel free to continue reading.
Although, a quick warning: as problematic as the race and gender representations were up to this point, they got worse. Frankly, it was a kind of exhausting.
GABBY: There’s a makeover scene in all her books. All of them.
GABBY: And there is NOTHING masculine about her except that she has short hair and the fact that they keep telling me she’s like a man. I’m so fucking confused.
RUDI: Right? Like she even has ‘curves in all the right places’.
RUDI: Coz she’s 10 pounds overweight but carries it well or some bullshit.
RUDI: But don’t worry. She knows she’s overweight and thinks it’s a bad thing. Would hate for someone to feel okay with not being thin. ??
RUDI: Oh! But you know what made me laugh? Cooper needs his friend to find Piper uninteresting so he can convince himself that he doesn’t want to fuck her. Like, what is that?
(Spoiler: I know what it is. It’s called homosociality.)
GABBY: I think he’s in love with Heath. Maybe that’s why this story isn’t working …
RUDI: That makes sense. Heath is pretty great. Was he this great when he had his own book?
GABBY: I think he did a fucked up thing with Annabelle’s family. Like he excuses their toxic behaviour, laughing it off and being like ‘It’s because they LOVE you’. She was distressed and he was buddying it up with her mum.
GABBY: Okay, so I’ve said it before but I’m getting real sick of the way strength, physical or otherwise, is constantly being equated with masculinity.
GABBY: Oh my GOD. Her Arab friend’s name is Habiba.
GABBY: HABIBA IS AN ENDEARMENT. WHY IS IT A NAME?
NOTE: Gabby has since realised that Habiba could very well be a name since the masculine equivalent, Habib, is a name.
But this doesn’t me we like or accept this faux attempt of cultural inclusivity.
RUDI: BECAUSE MAYBE SHE DOESNT HAVE AN ARAB FRIEND. SHE OVERHEARD SOMEONE ‘ETHNICALLY AMBIGUOUS’ GET CALLED HABIBA AND DECIDED THAT WAS THEIR NAME AND THAT THEY MUST BE FRIENDS BECAUSE ALL POC WANT WHITE FRIENDS. ALL. OF. US.
RUDI: And as we all know proximity to someone = personal relationship.
GABBY: Hence Faiza trusting this weird, white lady who wants to help her escape to Canada just because.
GABBY: Oh my god, the American nationalism is really shining through in this.
RUDI: Also how great is it that Berni is known to be racist towards Amber but hey let’s get her to put up Faiza!! This is not at all a weird choice!!
GABBY: Fucccckkkkkkkkkkkkk why would she do that?!?!
RUDI: It literally makes no sense. Coz you know who isn’t a racist and lives in the exact same building they’re stashing Faiza for the night? Amber.
GABBY: Fucking clueless. CLUELESS.
GABBY: Also, the uncomfortable portrayal of the greasy oil magnate is distressing.
GABBY: She’s nowhere near as subtle as she thinks she’s being.
RUDI: I had to stop reading. It was all so gross. Like, there was no need for this to be a thing. What purpose does it serve other than showing Piper and Cooper as white saviours?
GABBY: Zero. Zero. There are oil magnates in the south. That would have made way more sense. This is deeply racist and I really wasn’t anticipating coming against this in this book. Thought the erasure of black people in this fictional version of the NFL was enough for her to deal with.
GABBY: Yeah, I feel really sick. In this climate, a greasy, greedy, overbearing, arrogant Arab isn’t going down well with me. I feel very ill.
GABBY: Oh my god, Rudi, it just got worse.
GABBY: Why is it that womanising for Arabs automatically means they’re pedophiles?
GABBY: I want to throw up.
RUDI: Yep. Yep. That was the point. I actually had to put the book down and physically walk away.
GABBY: Oh god.
GABBY: How was this published? How?
RUDI: And this is what I really don’t get. Someone edited this and OK-ed it. Probably a couple of someones.
GABBY: It’s like it’s gotten worse? Or are we just noticing more? Is it a higher stakes game or are authors just that offensive?
RUDI: I honestly don’t know? It’s like most of the authors I read are so across representation that I don’t even need to worry anymore. And then I step outside of my bubble and I can’t tell if I’m just more sensitive to it now because I’m exposed to it as often or I just have a better understanding of what it looks like? Or a better understanding that shallow stereotypes aren’t necessary to storytelling?
RUDI: Like I think I used to forgive these scenes way more. I can’t now coz I know too much about how easy it would be to do it respectfully.
GABBY: Okay yeah definitely. Like the gender stuff for sureeee. But I can’t remember reading about race representations like this? Or maybe I did but I was so aware they were written in the 80s so they barely counted. Because Cassie Edwards is offensive and we all know that and acknowledge it and we moved on. But then this shit comes out.
GABBY: Because this seems informed by its time but also completely ignorant of the implications of its representations.
RUDI: I honestly can’t think of romance novels I used to read (like pre-uni days) that had non-white people? Unless I’m doing that white as default thing where there were and I’ve erased them.
GABBY: Johanna Lindsey. Frontier romance.
RUDI: Nah. She was never my jam.
GABBY: Oh wow, we’re getting a sensitivity lesson on Islam from the woman who wrote a Middle Eastern man who is greedy, sleazy and okay with the idea of intercourse with minors.
RUDI: I’m literal pages behind you.
RUDI: Oh. Okay. So not only was SEP giving a sensitivity lesson on Islam, but it’s because her ‘hero’ was Islamophobic. Cool story SEP. Tell me more about how great Cooper is.
GABBY: SHE ASKED FAIZA TO TAKE OFF HER SCARF.
RUDI: SHE WHAT?? NO!! FUCKING FUCK SEP. WHAT ARE YOU EVEN DOING??
GABBY: Cooper is in the car with them. She said it would be easier to get through the border.
RUDI: What? Like actually what? ‘We, THREE ACTUAL ADULTS, with legal passports and no known convictions, will look suspicious driving from America to Canada because our group is comprised of two white people and an Arab woman in a hijab.’
RUDI: Soo … Pipe and Coop have hooked up twice now and neither time actually has any heat to it. I keep forgetting it’s supposed to be romantic?
GABBY: I thought I was imagining it. Do not buy their connection at all.
RUDI: Each time I’m like — wait you’re kissing? Why?
GABBY: Lololol yes accurate.
GABBY: Also I can’t imagine his head. I keep thinking burnt toffee instead of burnt toast. Which is way cuter.
RUDI: Ha! Omg. I have no idea what he looks like?!
GABBY: Also I keep imagining him gardening barefoot and I’m so grossed out.
RUDI: Nah. Barefoot is my fav. Don’t be like that Gabby. But do judge him for having no face.
RUDI: When I’m at home home I go entire weeks without putting on shoes. The only time I put them on is if I have to mow the lawn so I don’t chop my foot off.
GABBY: I can accept that … but clearly I’m biased against douches named … Graham? ?
RUDI: Ian? ?
GABBY: Ben? ?
RUDI: Yes. This sounds right. Ben. Benjamin Noface.
GABBY: Ahhhh good old Mr Noface.
RUDI: I should not laugh but also … Ben is a quickdraw. ?????
GABBY: LOLOLOL Rocket Boy I think she calls him.
RUDI: Gabby. Gabby. It is a ‘sexual apocalypse’.
RUDI: It’s actually almost worth his whole ‘I was taught by a harem of older ladies to be a supercalifrigginawesome sex machine by the time I was 18’ story he told her like one chapter back?
RUDI: Coz honestly, that whole convo was horribly awkward. But now this! Such beauty. Much quickness!
GABBY: Yes! I thought the same thing.
GABBY: Lol he’s a total douche.
RUDI: He’s the worst and I want only bad things for him.
RUDI: Sex is totally a competitive sport for him. And his competitors are the women he sleeps with? This is such a weird and fascinating commentary on masculinity
RUDI: He’s … he’s turning his premature ejaculation into a sign of masculine power.
GABBY: Yeah. He’s got balls.
RUDI: And this is my biggest problem. This one concept has so much potential and depth to it, but the rest of the book has already let it down. Even without the problematic representations of race (which are a huge dealbreaker for me) it’s also just boring. I think the only other scene with any life to it was when Piper pushed him in front of a Nerf dart to save the kid? Jada? Everything else has been flat. Even that scene was ruined coz he kisses her and I said, Like really? You were just fighting.
Honestly, if we weren’t reading together I’d have abandoned it by now. And even as it stands, I’m never picking it up again once I’m done.
GABBY: Completely agree. It really doesn’t have that same contemporary comedy edge that her old books have. That scene was good and yeah, ruined with a kiss. They’re not working as a couple and isn’t that the biggest failing of a romance. Glad we’re in this together. Close to the end.
RUDI: You’re so right. The fact they aren’t working as a team is why this is failing. I don’t mind if they keep fighting, but they’re constantly working independently, and even worse, at cross-purposes.
RUDI: Oh Ben. Please just admit that you want to sex men so we can all go home.
GABBY: Yes! It would be so much easier for everyone involved.
GABBY: Still not getting the man vibe from her tho. Don’t know what SEP’s trying to do.
RUDI: Me either? Is it just that she doesn’t cry? I honestly can’t think of any other ‘manly’ thing about her.
RUDI: And even that — guys are allowed to cry. Everyone is allowed to cry. It’s just your emotions and passion leaking from your eyes. And that’s fine. Good even sometimes.
GABBY: Yeah, he just seems really old in his ideas. It makes him unattractive as a hero.
RUDI: Oh. Sorry Gabby, that’s actually how cis/-het women know we’re in love. You look at the other person and think ‘If I was a man I’d want to be just like him’ and then you know it’s Tru Luv™.
RUDI: Oh. My. Fucking. God.
Berni isn’t racist, she just hates that Amber is polite and respectful?
GABBY: That’s bull. I do not buy this at all.
GABBY: Oh my gooodddd there’s still 100 pages left. ?
RUDI: Gabby it is 9am on a Saturday and there’s a chainsaw being used literally outside my bedroom window and I think I still hate this book the most of all the ways this morning is bad.
RUDI: Please note: the chainsaw usage has set off a child in my building who is now crying loudly.
RUDI: For once we agree, Piper.
RUDI: I normally love that whole angsty breaking up for your own good stuff but this is still so meh.
RUDI: What is this manipulative bullshit?
RUDI: Fuck off with yourself, Ben.
RUDI: Who says they even need to get married to be committed to each other?
GABBY: Okay, I’m finished and I’m super pissed at how preachy her books get. The one in the house with the person who was hiding (not the last book but the one before) was preachy about weight loss and I feel as though this book was attempting to address sexual violence against women and used the Arabs as an example? Which is a mix of noble purposes combined with TERRIBLE framing. Her interaction with gender was so off. Kept relying on this binary because her hero couldn’t believe that masculine traits aren’t just strength and femininity isn’t just weakness. Because at the end when he says he has more emotional intelligence than her because he was allowed to cry as a kid, it doesn’t make sense. He should be less primitive about all his ideas. AND there were way too many characters.
RUDI: It was so preachy. And I’m not necessarily opposed to ‘teaching’ in books but, like don’t be further behind in your learning than me. And also integrate your lesson properly and consistently. Coz yeah, if he’s supposed to have more emotional intelligence than her, he needed to have shown it the whole way through. Oh! And like how he’s conscious of the idea that staking out her home after she’s dumped him is not okay, but then he manipulates her into marriage four pages later and THAT’S totally fine. Please. Tell me more about how emotionally intelligent your hero is SEP.
RUDI: Also — totally agree. There are way too many characters. And subplots.
GABBY: YES EXACTLY. He was so inconsistent and the way he got her to marry him was illogical and offensive. I didn’t buy the whole ‘Your dad has ruined you for love’ schtick either.
RUDI: Like yes, her dad defs fucked her up a little, but I’m not sure a marriage license would really help counteract any of that.
GABBY: They were both pretty flighty despite what Cooper insisted on telling her at the end, ie He was in for the long haul and always had been.
RUDI: Yes! He’s totally been fighting any kind of emotional attachment to her up until she dumped him.
GABBY: And then he whips out the whole ‘I’ve loved you since the moment I saw you.’ BUT DID YOU EVEN?
RUDI: Pretty sure you were dismissive and rude and derogatorily diminished her femininity but sure — you loved her.
RUDI: Oh! And did you notice the epilogue starts in Jada’s POV for no good reason I can think of?
GABBY: Unless she’s the next MC?
RUDI: That’s the only reason to do it. Which … if that’s the case I will read but also I’m so scared.
GABBY: Terrified. No subtlety at all.
RUDI: Although tbf Jada was almost well written (ethnically ambiguous description aside) and had the most interesting plot thread with her school Nerf assassin comp. My biggest peeve was her dialogue. SEP doesn’t know how to write uptalk at all.
GABBY: Yes, oh my god, I’m so glad you noticed. You don’t need to say ‘like’ every two seconds for us to know she’s a teen.
RUDI: It’s such a small thing but it was soo noticeable and broke me out every time.
RUDI: Which, I guess if you don’t LIKE uptalk you’re probs gonna struggle to use it well.
GABBY: Shame I still know nothing about her mother Kayla even though she was Piper’s neighbour.
RUDI: Such a shame! Defs would’ve rather seen more of her and lost Berni altogether.
GABBY: And Jen. She was barely on the page. So completely useless.
RUDI: I’ve been thinking about this for literally an entire day now and … do any of the Chicago Stars heroines have real friends other than the other wives? Phoebe has her sister but that was a strained relationship til it wasn’t. I don’t remember anyone else having proper female friends? SEP doesn’t really ever write female friendships now that I really think about it.
GABBY: Godddd you’re right. They’re typically loners though. Something is pulling them away from the people around them. Whether it’s shitty families, their job, their nerdiness, something is making them loners. It just makes the Phoebe scene so much weirder. Like she asks all these questions about Piper’s intentions and then ends up as the celebrant?? Didn’t get it at all.
RUDI: Because once you marry into the team THEN you can have friends. Or something.
GABBY: Yeah, marriage is validation of Piper as a woman. It’s her rite of passage into true femininity.
RUDI: I distinctly remember a scene in one of the other books where all the wives watch ‘porn for women’ together. (It was porn for women coz it starred people with all different body types).
GABBY: That was actually kinda positive.
RUDI: It actually was. And it’s her ability and willingness to write scenes like that in the past that made this book such a disappointment. I’m used to being let down over the ending, but I expect greatness until that point.
It was about this point I realised I was talking in circles out of pure frustration. And honestly, it’s hard not to talk in circles about this book.
I wanted to love it. I went in prepared to love it. And twice it even gave me reason to believe I could love it. Unfortunately at Every. Single. Other. Turn. it proved to me that any love would be misplaced.
So I’m going to give Gabby the final word on First Star I See Tonight …
GABBY: Her last three books have upset me and this one was the tipping point in terms of gender and race representations. It’s hard reconciling those early books with these ones now. I want to go back and reread and see if there’s anything that hints at what the new ones are doing because this one was distressing.
Depending on where you sit with Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ books generally, you may find more enjoyment in this than we did, in which case — mazel tov! But if you’ve been side-eyeing her for a while First Star I See Tonight probably won’t make things better.
Zero Stars. Maybe even negative stars. Is that a thing we can do?
Content advisory: Requires heavy-duty rose-coloured glasses.