The Make-Up Test by Jenny L. Howe
September 13, 2022 by St. Martin’s Griffin
Review by Melanie
Let me just state for the record, that I will die on the hill that romance novels need to end with a HEA (or a HFN, at the very least). I will also state that I love a second chance romance, especially when it comes with a side of grovel novel. This is why it pains me to say I really did not like this book, despite it being second chance romance, and when the end of the book arrived with its inevitable HEA, all I really wanted to do was yeet the MMC into the sun and wish the FMC could find herself a partner more worthy of her. To me, that truly would have been the real HEA of this book.
Let’s backtrack and set up the premise of this book. Allison is a PhD student studying medieval literature under a professor she’s long admired. She’s shocked to find out that her graduate cohort also includes her undergrad ex-boyfriend, Colin Benjamin. Allison and Colin dated for several months in undergrad, when she was a sophomore and he was 2 years ahead of her. Allison, studious and goal-oriented, was working hard for the Rising Star award and Colin, by all accounts was the supportive, encouraging boyfriend. When the results were announced, it was revealed that she came in second…to Colin, who unbeknownst to her had also entered the competition. Allison, of course, was justifiably angry and a week later, when they met up, Colin unceremoniously dumped her, stating that he needed to focus on his future goals and she was holding him back.
Cut to present day, and Allison and Colin find themselves in a similar predicament, as TAs to the same professor, vying for the same position, essentially in competition with each other. Now, I have no problems with this as a premise, the whole enemies to lovers, competing for a job trope is one I really enjoy. My main problem with this book lies squarely with Colin as the MMC.
The book is told entirely through Allison’s point of view and we’re only ever given the information she is privy to and nothing more than that. We learn everything just as Allison learns it so for the first entire 50% of the book, Colin is presented as an absolute asshole. He’s smug and condescending, keeps trying to one-up Allison or undercut her. I will say that the second half of the book didn’t do a whole lot to change my opinion of Colin so I can’t be entirely sure whether I would have been more sympathetic to him had I known Colin’s side of the story from the very beginning.
At about the halfway mark, Allison and Colin have a long overdue talk about what exactly happened years ago in undergrad. It turns out, Colin did not get accepted to any of the PhD programs he applied to. And he was already well aware that his girlfriend was brilliant and going places so he was…intimidated and jealous and ashamed. And he didn’t want to hold her back! Ahh yes, that old chestnut, the “I DID IT FOR YOUR OWN GOOD” line of reasoning that befalls so many romantic heroes. He also, in a scene that made me do a double take and reread it multiple times to make sure that I was not misreading it, explains exactly why he didn’t get accepted to any of the programs he applied to. He, a white, straight middle-class dude, had a hard time standing out from the sea of other white, straight middle-class dude applicants.
Now, you must be thinking, “Surely he redeems himself in the second half and proves himself worthy of his love interest!” Um. Well. NOT EXACTLY. Unless, you count him stealing her work idea and using it for his own as redemption, in which case, TOTALLY. The two of them have to give these major presentations towards the end of the semester and their presentations basically determine who gets to stay on and work with the professor (who happens to be Allison’s dream professor, the whole reason she came to this university). And Colin basically takes her idea as inspiration for his and also uses her title. Of course, Allison is enraged and runs out before watching his presentation and doesn’t know that it’s actually not the same one. And then, in a scene that’s so baffling, she ends up apologizing to him for always making him feel less than and therefore forcing him to make these questionable choices. (I’ll be honest, I did skim this part because I was so furious by this point, I just wanted this book to be over).
I liked Allison, I like smart, competitive, competent, ambitious heroines. However, I intensely dislike heroes who feel so intimidated by their love interests that they try to undercut them, manipulate them, gaslight them, and make them apologize for the hero’s own shortcomings. Allison is great but she deserves so much better than a guy who, on page, whether it be through present day interactions or past recollections, shows himself to be complete trash and utterly unworthy of her. I truly don’t even know how she managed to fall for him in undergrad. There’s another scene told through Allison’s recollection of past events where Allison, who is fat, and Colin are at a restaurant. A man shoves her and calls her fat to her face to which Allison, who loves herself exactly as she is, responds in kind. Colin drags her from the restaurant and tells her not to say anything to make it worse since he was also bullied as a child. So, instead of sticking up for his girlfriend and defending her, he proceeds to try and silence her voice.
I do want to draw attention to some of the other aspects of this book. Allison also has a very contentious relationship with her verbally abusive father. One of my favorite parts of this book actually was about Allison drawing clear boundaries and cutting her toxic father out of her life. Her mother, who she is close to, continues to call her and urge her to have a relationship with her father and I’m so glad that Allison stands her ground and refuses. I have to say, I was not super thrilled with her mother constantly trying to guilt her into reconciling with a man who had shown his daughter no love or respect or kindness. The guilt magnifies when her dad is hospitalized with heart complications and they have it out in a scene that is truly magnificent because it’s Allison being truthful about her feelings. And when her father eventually dies, I’m glad the author allowed Allison to remain true to her own feelings instead of falling into a pit of guilt over not making nice with a man who was now gone forever and had never shown her any love while he was alive.
I also want to speak about Sophie, an aspiring fashion designer who is Allison’s roommate, best friend, and possibly the only real voice of reason in Allison’s life. Sophie is supportive of Allison’s goals, has her back when it comes to her dysfunctional relationship with her father, and repeatedly cautions her about giving Colin a second chance. Sophie is the true unsung hero of this book. There’s a subplot about the growing distance between Sophie and Allison as their respective dreams and ambitions are taking them in different directions and once again, it’s Sophie coming in with the hard truths and honestly, she was my favorite character in the book. What does it say when I read a romance and my favorite character turns out to be the FMCs best friend?
I had high expectations for this book. I’m always on the lookout for books with excellent fat representation and this book had it. I love a second chance romance with a side order of grovel novel. This book…was a second chance romance. And the only real apology was the one that Allison gives to Colin for making him feel bad about himself. I ended the book unable to invest in them as a couple and if these were real people, then there’s no way I could believe in the longevity of their pairing. Truly sad to say this was a huge miss for me.
Content Notes: Fat shaming, parental abuse and abandonment, sick parent, on page parental death