One of the most relatable heroines I’ve read in new adult romance, and an athlete hero who knows when to step up and when to step back. Team Stayson is a keeper.
I’ve been slowly glomming Mina V. Esguerra’s backlist, trying to find The One. You know, that one book in an author’s oeuvre that hits my sweet spot. With Learning To Fall, I think I’ve finally found it.
When rugby hottie Grayson Price walks into Steph Bennett’s live drawing workshop, she decides he’s the perfect candidate to fulfil one of the tasks on the Live Like Fiction monthly blog challenge — to go out with a stereotypical romance novel hero. It was supposed to be one date — he’s totally not her type — but one date turns into a fake girlfriend proposition…and more. Steph isn’t looking for a relationship, especially when she’s on the brink of failing art school due to spending too much time on her book blog. Grayson is trying to juggle his ambitions on and off the field, including featuring in an upcoming reality show about the rugby team. The last thing Steph needs is another distraction.
I was initially hesitant to take a chance on this story, featuring a book blogging heroine (because meta much?) trying to get through art school (one of my least favourite career choices for a heroine).
But okay, the author had me at rugby playing hero.
If nothing else, Esguerra consistently produces well-researched characters without displaying the nuts and bolts of her research. I thought I would be turned off by an author’s portrayal of a book blogger, but Esguerra renders Steph Bennett so well that I felt almost grateful that someone has managed to capture what it feels like to be a book blogger. Her conversations with her blogger friend Delilah had me giggling so bad:
Private message transcript:
Delilah Ferrer: But I thought you LIKED reading threesomes.
Steph Bennett: Del, don’t even.
Delilah: So he was actually in a dirty orgy?
Steph: No. No one said “dirty orgy”.
Steph: What I mean is I don’t need to explain why I did what I did. I’ve had enough.
Delilah: Enough of what? Explain like I’m five. No wait, I want the dirty parts, so explain like I’m twenty-five. Don’t leave anything out.
Learning To Fall is a great example of a story that doesn’t need to rely on extreme plot twists and tortured characters to get those all-elusive feels from the reader. There are so many wonderful moments in this book — some funny, some sexy, and some painful (in a good way!) — and Steph and Grayson are possibly the most adorable couple I’ve ever read in new adult romance. (Grayson even names their ship — Team Stayson!)
That’s not to say that this book is all sweetness and no bite. Steph and Grayson are well-rounded characters, with backstories and conflicts that are difficult to pigeonhole. Grayson is a natural leader, but instead of going for the easy alpha hero archetype, Esguerra shows how those qualities become a strength in his relationship with Steph. The rugby references feel incredibly well researched, and though some readers might feel anvilled with the ‘learning to fall’ references, I found them charming.
He shook his head. ‘But you have the ball. You’re… it’s a metaphor, okay? Do you want us to stop talking like this? I can talk like a normal person, you know.’
He pushes back any time Steph tries to box him into a trope and I love that about this book. When Steph brings him home with her for Thanksgiving, he balks at the cover story she tries to give him — supportive boyfriend with a career in sports, saving up to marry her — because he thinks it makes him sound like a jackass and he proceeds to tell her why. The subtle dismantling of romantic stereotypes in order to make the hero even more swoony is just glorious to read.
Esguerra uses the language of romance readers to make me fall in love with the characters, and I think that’s why Learning To Fall will appeal to many other romance bloggers and readers who read blogs. Here are some snippets (each line is from a different part of the novel):
Grayson: ‘Molly invited me here to be Fabio?’
Steph: ‘I could have gone out with a Greek billionaire, you know. Stereotypical romance hero, not at all my type.’
Steph: Make no mistake, I know the Fake Girlfriend trope.
Delilah: What does this guy have? Does he have magic peen?
Delilah: I RPF-ed you. Don’t tell me it’s not working out.
Delilah: Please fix this. The fic in my head about you is better. You don’t deserve the wild fantasies I’ve dreamed up for you and your rugby guy.
Delilah: Grand gesture time.
Esguerra also uses the language of art and design, and sport, and private investigation (Grayson’s family’s business) to fully convey the richness of the characters’ lives. And I think that’s something that can be missed by many new adult romance authors. These characters are at an age where — at least in this setting — they’re faced with an abundance of choices. They have opportunities in many different worlds, and they’re not defined by any one of those worlds. Learning To Fall brings this theme together beautifully.
The story is told in the first person solely from Steph’s point of view, and it’s to Esguerra’s credit that most of the time the reader isn’t left wondering about Grayson’s reactions or motivations. These are made clear in his words and his gestures, as seen through Steph’s eyes. Of course, he had me after their first sexual encounter (him giving her oral sex):
‘I hope that satisfied your curiosity about the ones you don’t normally like,’ Grayson said, already putting his shoes back on, while I didn’t even know when he had taken them off. ‘We might not be your type, but we get the job done.’
‘I’m not…very coherent right now.’
‘I’ll take that as a compliment.’
And then he suggests she drinks some water, and then HE LEAVES politely.
The dark moment in the story is also very interesting. The producer of the reality TV show that Grayson is involved in coaches Steph through the process of what’s happening with the show, and in so doing taps into Steph’s insecurities about the relationship. Again, Esguerra avoids the easy stereotype of exploitative TV producer, and the TV crew is portrayed as professional, relatively ethical and genuinely concerned with ensuring that the participants are treated fairly, even if it’s only to protect the show — what motivations to ascribe to the TV crew is left to the reader to decide.
The biggest weakness of the story is the denouement. The grand gesture feels very rushed, and I would have liked an additional chapter to tie up the issues that triggered Steph’s emotional crisis, if not an epilogue to show that Grayson and Steph are in a happy place. Don’t get me wrong: this is a romance book, so the ending isn’t contentious, but I needed just that little bit longer to savour the happy time with Team Stayson.
Sticklers for The Declaration will be disappointed, and I think this betrays the book’s self-publishing origins. If I were reading this book from a mainstream publishing imprint, I would expect an ‘I love you’. Team Stayson has earned it.
Content advisory: A hero that will make you believe in book boyfriends.
You can read the first 7 chapters of the book on Wattpad (free account required). Published by Flirt Publishing.