Published by HarperTeen on May 5th, 2015
Genres: Contemporary, Romance, Young Adult
When Gia Montgomery's boyfriend, Bradley, dumps her in the parking lot of her high school prom, she has to think fast. After all, she'd been telling her friends about him for months now. This was supposed to be the night she proved he existed. So when she sees a cute guy waiting to pick up his sister, she enlists his help. The task is simple: be her fill-in boyfriend— two hours, zero commitment, a few white lies. After that, she can win back the real Bradley.
The problem is that days after prom, it's not the real Bradley she's thinking about, but the stand-in. The one whose name she doesn't even know. But tracking him down doesn't mean they're done faking a relationship. Gia owes him a favor and his sister intends to see that he collects: his ex-girlfriend's graduation party — three hours, zero commitment, a few white lies.
Just when Gia begins to wonder if she could turn her fake boyfriend into a real one, Bradley comes waltzing back into her life, exposing her lie, and threatening to destroy her friendships and her new-found relationship.
Kasie West is one of my absolute all-time favorite authors, as anyone who has read my blog probably knows. I will pre-order all of her books from now until the end of time, and read them almost as soon as they enter my hands. Such was the case with The Fill-In Boyfriend, which wasn’t only promising me excellent romantic fluff, but also one of my favorite tropes of all time: fake dating. This book is fluffy, awesome, and filled with meaningful character growth.
The Fill-In Boyfriend tells the story of Gia, who is dumped… at prom. This was going to be the first time her friends met her boyfriend, who goes to a college a fair ways away, and her frenemy, Jules, had been constantly insinuating that he doesn’t exist. So Gia, desperate to save face, gets a guy to fill in for him. Huzzah to the fake dating trope! It is one of my absolute favorites, for serious. And Kasie West does it well. When Gia and Hayden strike up this deal, they first go back and forth pretending to date to alternately impress her friends and prove to his ex he’s moved on. But in no time, a genuine, caring friendship develops between the two. With this geeky boy (who wore a TARDIS shirt when they first met, instantly winning my heart) Gia finds it easier to be herself and relax. And Hayden is a brilliant fake date – too sweet and adorable for words. Seriously. No words. It didn’t take long to ship them very fiercely.
But obviously, this set up does not come without its consequences. Gia lied to her friends to save face, but when genuine feelings start developing, those lies are in danger of being exposed. And that is extremely hard for her. Gia is actually one of the most popular girls in her class – which is quite unusual for a YA protagonist. Her image means a lot to her, and her friendships have come under strain recently. She does feel really close to Claire and Laney, but Jules, a more recent addition to their friends group, seems to be constantly subverting her, trying to dethrone her as the queen bee and kick her out of the group.
In addition, being with Hayden makes Gia want to be better. To not always act in the ways that are expected of her. To not bully the goth kids just for looking different. It forces her to realize the pointless cruelty and unflinching privilege that had become all too normal to her. And I love that kind of relationship. It’s a relationship that challenges her to look at herself and to grow. It challenges her beliefs and accepted truths and makes her realize it doesn’t have to be that way. A lot of that is also because of Bec, Hayden’s sister, who at first absolutely despises Gia and all that she stands for, because she is one of those goth kids who gets ridiculed by the popular crowd. The two actually eventually have a grudging friendship which made my heart soar.
What did surprise me was that this book wasn’t nearly as fluffy and happy as I was expecting. There’s actually quite a tough story here about the social media generation: teenagers nowadays who construct their self-image around what would get the most likes and followers online. Social media is the new place to agonize over popularity – and, yes, as a blogger, I totally get that. This theme was so personally relevant that it felt almost brutal at times, as Gia is confronted with the fact that she’s far too obsessed with image and is hardly letting her true self out. She doesn’t even really know who she is. There’s a strong character growth arc there that I will always treasure – which I will be coming back to when I feel like the social media pressures are getting to me. So props for this unexpectedly beautiful story.
That theme spills over into Gia’s family and their relationships. They’re the family that’s envied by everyone – who never fight, who always look perfectly put together, etc. etc. But Gia discovers that a lot of that is just because they’re all repressing themselves in an effort to keep up that image. It’s a brutal reality check when she realizes that her family’s not as perfect or enviable as everyone thinks. It’s when she’s spending time with Hayden and Bec that she realizes what true, heartfelt relationships should be like – as friends, partners, and family, and that’s just absolutely beautiful.
I know that friends and followers might be shocked by the fact that I’m giving Kasie West anything less than a perfect score. And yeah, I’ll grant you that it surprised me as well. But it comes from two main (tiny) things. First off, as far as fake dating shenanigans go, I couldn’t help but compare this to The Art of Lainey by Paula Stokes, and that book was just so much more feelsy for me. That book reached flailing-uncontrollably-in-bed levels, and this one just didn’t quite get there. And it also featured a popular girl coming to terms with her true self, so I think the stories were just a bit too close for me. And second, it’s the mean girl thing. I don’t understand Jules’s motivation for a second, and it frustrates me so much. I’m just done with mean girl shenanigans in YA – they give me such headaches. The ending was fair enough, as Gia discovers what true friends are like and cuts out the ones not worth her time, but it made me feel really sad.