Those of us obsessed with celebrity relationship drama have often wondered if it’s all just for the cameras. After all, nothing in Hollywood is real, and since fans can’t help but obsess over the minor details of a movie star’s personal life, why wouldn’t they choose to take the narrative into their own hands and give people a glamorous love story? It’s obvious that they do, since some celebrity relationships are so obviously fake, *cough* Shawn Mendes and Camilla Cabello *cough*.
The View was Exhausting, co-written by Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta, is about one such (fake) celebrity romance. It will appeal to fans of Daisy Jones and the Six and Crazy Rich Asians. In the novel, Whitman “Win” Tagore is an internationally famous British Indian actress. Given how difficult it is for women of color to make a name for themselves in Hollywood, Win is careful about her image and has fine-tuned her public persona down to the smallest detail.
After a humiliating scandal early in her career, Win has spent the last few years cultivating an on-and-off-again relationship with Leo Milanowski, the famous playboy son of a millionaire, to show the public she has a romantic and vulnerable side.
The novel proves that the “fake dating” trope is a practical move. Anytime Win’s career needs a boost, her publicist ropes in Leo, organizes a few paparazzi shots of them canoodling in exotic locales, and social media immediately goes wild for their perfect love story. At the start of the novel, Leo meets Win in St. Tropez, because she is hoping to get a lucrative role and needs public opinion on her side after an ugly publicized breakup.
Despite the mutual attraction and friendship, Win has never wanted to jeopardize her perfect fake relationship with Leo by starting a real one. But just as she begins to want something more with Leo, a secret he has kept from her comes to light, creating the potential to out their fake relationship and cause a disastrous media spectacle.
The story is told through a series of glimpses into Win and Leo’s past experiences, showing us flashbacks of how they met, their close friendship and the favors they have done for one another. the intricacies of staging a relationship, and the complex nature of all relationships: the undefinable one they’ve had with each other and the ones with the other people in their lives.
Most of the novel is deeply introspective and really works as a character study of Win and Leo. To be honest, I had some trouble making any sense of the plot because of this, especially since the first half of the story has a lot of exposition. If you’re looking for a quick romantic read, this may be better for another time. On the other hand, I did like that the story wasn’t just focused on the love story between the two of them, but also their families and friends, especially Win’s fraught relationship with her mother Pritha, who doesn’t support her career choice.
As a woman of color in the entertainment industry, Win’s career is sometimes a losing battle. Her work relies on star power, and directors and the media paying enough attention to her that she gets lucrative roles for which she would normally not be considered. When a movie fails, directors blame the fact that they had to cast her based on “political correctness”. Sadly, many of us know all too well what its like to have people reduce your identity to the color of your skin instead of your abilities.
She is privy to racial microaggressions, such as being labeled “exotic” by casting agents. Win feels that she cannot call out racist remarks because she is aware that she’ll be seen as the one who is overreacting. She is never allowed to act out, for fear of coming across as unlikeable, and even if she were to unabashedly put her career before a publicized social life, she risks the tabloids painting her as a prudish workaholic.
As we’ve seen from the way the British media treats Meghan Markle, there is really no end to the vitriol aimed at women of color in the spotlight. While I liked that the novel explored the discrimination Win faces, I do wish it also touched a bit more on her relationship with her South Asian identity, since it felt like she only viewed her background as an obstacle to her ambition.
Through Leo, the novel also comments on the unfulfilling bleakness of constant fame and wealth. Unlike Win, Leo as a character comes off as someone who is directionless in life. He has spent years wandering from one glamorous destination to another (I wonder if the authors named him after a certain famous Leo), partying with famous friends, taking care of his eccentric siblings, and carrying out every inane task his overbearing millionaire father sets for him.
Leo enjoys a string of brief projects and so is happy to be Win’s fake boyfriend whenever she needs the media buzz. During the course of the novel though, it seems he is beginning to get frustrated by playing a part in the hoax and feels like he has to hide a secret from Win because it would jeopardize her career.
While this is definitely still a romance novel, even the real love story isn’t exactly about falling headfirst for someone, but more about the realistic problems that arise when two people who care deeply for each other have trouble communicating their feelings. Win and Leo have this vibe where they are each the only person the other can rely on in the world. Still, they don’t always say or do the right thing, and they don’t even always like each other.
The story explores how this is due to them being from different backgrounds: Leo coming from privilege and Win from an immigrant working-class family. Though Leo is empathetic about the struggles in Win’s career, he obviously cannot understand the extent of what it’s like to be a woman of color in a predominantly white industry. As Leo questions why Win doesn’t call out racist remarks, Win feels frustrated by his simplistic worldview, which in her opinion comes from a place of lifelong privilege and never having to fight for what you want. Though it takes them some time, they must each learn to communicate their problems in order to feel loved and supported.
The View Was Exhausting has an addictive, if somewhat meandering storyline. It takes some time to get into, but I was invested in learning more about Win and Leo, and watching them grow as people. The writing style combines dialogue with several flashbacks, which makes you feel like you’re being made to understand and empathize with the characters. On the other hand, the plot of the book is overwhelmed by the constant revelations in their internal monologues. You will come for the glamour, but you will stay because the double standards of Hollywood infuriate you, and because you want to know how Win and Leo will finally realize that they love each other.
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