Finished this book: Playing with Boys by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

Cover of Playing with Boys by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

Cover of Playing with Boys by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

I picked up this book rather hoping for something fluffy and light. It’s set in LA in the entertainment industry, and I expected it would be a long list of designer names, descriptions of people’s clothing, wheeling and dealing, parties, romantic drama, and a predictable ending where the love interests overcome misunderstandings and barriers to finally declare their undying devotion.

Most of that was indeed there, but there was also a deeper, more engaging aspect to the book. The three main protagonists are all Latina women, with very different personalities, pasts, and goals. The book weaves this all together as the three women come to know each other. Alexis is a Texan and a Republican who wears pearls, manages entertainers, and has two dads (not a couple). Marcella is an actress obsessed with her appearance who is trying to impress her actress mother and resisting Alexis’s  efforts to teach her some manners. Olivia underwent a horrific trauma as a child in El Salvador and now struggles with PTSD as she raises her son and tries to process her trauma through screenwriting.

One of the things I really enjoyed was a glimpse into cultures with which I am not familiar. Each protagonist has her own view of other Hispanic cultures (I’m thinking especially of Alexis’s rant about the differences between Mexicans and Cubans). And at one point, there’s a short aside about the terms Latinx and Hispanic that was a learning moment for me.

But the book was not heavy-handed about race and culture. These things arose naturally as a part of the plot and the individual protagonists. I really liked the fact that the only major character in the book who was white was one asshole ex-boyfriend. The themes of misogyny, sexism and racism in the entertainment industry, and stereotyping were prevalent and relevant to the actual lived experiences of each protagonist.

Trauma, abuse, and mental illness were also handled well for the most part, except that some of the initial descriptions of Olivia’s PTSD-related behaviour (and the progress of recovery) rang kind of false to me. On the other hand, I am not an expert, and obviously not everyone with PTSD is going to react to it in the same way, so that’s just my own bias. I appreciated that the writer did not shy from these issues but also did not sensationalise them or linger on them in a voyeuristic way as so often happens.

Nobody in the book seemed to be actually poor. One character struggles with enormous debt but has rich parents to bail her out. Everyone in the book is cishet, with the exception of one person who has some sexual thoughts about another woman and wonders what is wrong with herself. Nobody has a disability that affects their daily functioning with the possible exception of Olivia. The Republican / Democrat divide was irritating to me, although it was interesting to see the references to how that relates to Cuban politics (a very small part of the book, though). And the way the lives of the protagonists seem so focused on heterosexual relationships: getting a man, leaving a man, being left by a man, wishing one had a man, pairing off at the end of the book or else defining one’s self in relation to not having / needing a man—really? These are three smart, creative, talented, goal-oriented women, and it would have been nice to see their rich inner lives and their friendships get more airtime.

In general, it was the light and fluffy book I expected, with far too much concern about appearance, weight, bodily insecurity, brand name purchases, cute dresses, and social status. But at the same time, it dealt with a lot of themes I find important (race, mental health, feminism, childhood trauma), and was an interruption of the presumption of whiteness. I’m not sure I’ll want to read it again—there’s only so much Vera Wang and Prada and Bentley I can take—but I would probably try another book by the same writer.

Playing with Boys by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez.





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