REVIEW: When Grumpy Met Sunshine by Charlotte Stein

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Note: Charlotte Stein have followed each other and have been friendly online for many years. This review is my unvarnished opinion regardless.

Content notes: parental abuse, childhood poverty, and alcoholism, fatphobia

Dear Charlotte Stein,

I admit I had some hesitation about reading When Grumpy Met Sunshine. Generally, I’m less excited to read about characters inspired by either real life people (this is harder for me) or fictional characters. I tend to find it difficult to separate the “original” (person or character) from the book version and can find myself importing a whole pile of things which don’t belong into the story. Alfie Harding is inspired by Roy Kent from Ted Lasso. Now, I love Roy Kent, (how could I not?) but I wasn’t sure how I felt about reading about a someone very like Roy Kent who was not Roy Kent. The thing is, while I totally heard Roy Kent’s voice in my head every time Alfie spoke, he wasn’t Roy Kent. Alfie Harding was the inspiration but that’s as far as it went. Which, I admit, was a relief. Unlike other books where I found the story being intruded upon by the original person, here, Alfie very quickly became someone totally new to me. Yay. Which is all to say I’m very glad I read it because I really would have been missing out.

Mabel Willicker is a would-be novelist and ghostwriter. She’s been put forward to ghostwrite the memoir of Alfie Harding, former football (that is, soccer for those outside the UK) star. Alfie is notoriously grumpy, hot-tempered, uptight and difficult. He’s gone through 17 prior suggestions already. Mabel doesn’t really hold out a lot of hope she will be lucky number 18.

One of his teammates was asked to use three words to describe him, and all three had been annoying.

Mabel is, of course, the “sunshine” of the title. Only, her bright and bubbly personality is most often a front so that people can’t see she is easily hurt and vulnerable. For some reason though, when she first meets Alfie, she doesn’t let him get away with his bad behaviour and puts a stop to the meeting promptly, telling herself she’s just dodged a bullet rather than missed out on a job which guaranteed her income.

The whole thing would have been a disaster.

A mess of a million scary arguments.

Him, coming up with increasingly horrible insults.

Her, eventually tossing him into the nearest wood chipper.

And she just didn’t have easy access to machinery like that.

Only, it turns out that Alfie does want Mabel to ghostwrite his memoir for reasons that are unclear until the very end of the book. From there, Mabel is in a kind of wonderland (of the Alice and the white rabbit variety), never really trusting her own eyes or ears, barely able to believe she’s becoming friends with Alfie, let alone anything else. 

More as a kind of preemptive armor than intention, Mabel starts as she means to go on and shows a fairly unfiltered version of herself to Alfie. Alfie does not wish to reveal too much in his memoir; it is Mabel’s job to extract all the things he doesn’t want to talk about from him and put it on paper and, to try and convince him to allow it to be printed. (Mabel would never put something in the book Alfie did not agree to.) She has some rather provoking methods.

He shook his head and blew out a breath. “You’re sadistic, you are. Like a really evil Mary Poppins.”

Mabel’s role is a secret, so when the media notice Alfie is spending time with Mabel, they need to come up with an excuse for it. Mabel is a fat woman and the internet has a lot of feelings about that as well (it has to be said that there is a vocal contingent of supporters, not just trolls). Alfie finds himself …enthusiastically defending Mabel to members of the paparazzi and next thing you know they’re fake dating.

Mabel is already having all kinds of feelings for Alfie – not just pants feelings either – but she knows better than to believe someone like him could really want to be with someone like her. He usually dates supermodels. The very idea of Alfie falling in love with Mabel for real is such a non-starter for Mabel that she misses every sign that’s right before her eyes. 

Of course, fake dating means spending additional time together in the public eye. Alfie has a bit of a reputation for kissing his girlfriends on doorsteps so, for the media to believe their really dating…  Mabel is beside herself.

And as she did she felt him lean down, and kiss her fucking neck.

Just straight up kissed her neck, like that was a normal thing people did all the time as they were trying to get indoors. Instead of something she was pretty sure she’d never even seen happen to Julia Roberts in eighty movies about people being really horny for Julia Roberts.

The story is told completely from Mabel’s POV so we don’t know what’s going on in Alfie’s head until right near the end. Mabel’s belief that Alfie could not possibly love her could have been annoying I suppose. It was, essentially, what was keeping them apart. But I understood it. Alfie Harding is a superstar. He’s rich, famous and yes, he usually does date supermodels. Mabel is a normal person who does not move in Alfie’s usual circles. Her whole life she’s been told, by various men, that she’s not good enough and not deserving of their attention. As a result, she’s built up a thick armor. It’s really no wonder that Mabel tries to protect herself or that she takes a lot of convincing that Alfie does in fact love her to the moon and back.

I laughed out loud so many times as I read. Actual guffawing and snorting occurred. Mabel and Alfie have such a delightful dynamic. Both of them are head over heels for the other but neither can or will believe it is possible for the other to feel the same so they are constantly at cross purposes and constantly trying not to let the other know what’s really happening*. (*it turns out that Alfie is much worse at this than Mabel is, to be fair.) The say preposterous things to each other – Mabel in attempts at misdirection and Alfie because he’s baffled and trying desperately to keep up.

“Holy crapola did you actually just say that?”

“No. I never. You’ve fallen asleep and me saying that is just a horrible nightmare. In a second I’m going to wake you up by telling you something completely normal, like you looked like a soft rabbit.”

“But that isn’t completely normal either, Alfie.”

“I know,” he groaned. “I heard myself saying it and my brain just started yelling.”

“Well, it obviously needs to get faster. So it grabs you before you do it.”

“And what are the chances of that? You’ve seen how I am. Stuck in the past, slower than an old man sucking a toffee. It’s a fucking miracle I can even keep up with you at all, conversation-wise. Never mind saying things that make sense.”

It’s not all laughs. Over the course of the book, Mabel finds she recognises in Alfie things that resonate with her own experience. She finds out who the real man is and he’s not very much like the public persona at all. There’s a reason he’s so angry all the time. And, he’s never angry with her. (Occasionally frustrated and yes, grumpy, but not angry.) Alfie is much more than a “football guy” in the public eye who gets in trouble a lot. There’s far more to him than that and Mabel, for her part, appreciates what it means that she gets to know the real him.

I highlighted so much of the text as I read. I enjoyed the turns of phrase and the banter and the baffling, charming absurdity of their courtship. I liked both Mabel and Alfie very much. I would like to be Mabel’s friend. Possibly Alfie’s too but he’s not big on friends so maybe not.

Even though I understood Mabel’s fear and belief, I did wish she had been a little braver near the end. I did wish that they didn’t have to spend so much time apart (in terms of temporal-time if not page-time). (I was reading an ARC which was clearly not the final version so I’m not exactly sure if the time frame I read is what’s in the published book. Still, I can only review the book I actually read.) Perhaps it is a sign of the book’s success with me that I reacted so strongly to things going pear-shaped. As it was though I experienced quite the disappointment.

Of course, this is a romance novel and things turn out right in the end. Just… did it have to take them so long? They were miserable for too much time!!

While my overwhelming memory of the story is laughing at how great they were together, there was no lack of the more earthy kind of chemistry either. Mabel is delighted to find that the tell-all stories from former girlfriends are all completely true: it’s huge and yes, he can go all night.

But, what sticks in my mind the most is how charmed I was and how much I laughed.

“Well, at least tell me why you did it.”

“As if I have the first fucking clue. Mabel, I don’t know why I do anything. A fact that you well know after the meeting debacle. And the phone call debacle. And the restaurant debacle. And the Starbucks debacle.”

She rolled her eyes. “I get it. You have a lot of debacles.”

“Yet you’re surprised this happened.”

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Kaetrin

Kaetrin started reading romance as a teen and then took a long break, detouring into fantasy and thrillers. She returned to romance in 2008 and has been blogging since 2010. She reads contemporary, historical, a little paranormal, urban fantasy and romantic suspense, as well as erotic romance and more recently, new adult. She loves angsty books, funny books, long books and short books. The only thing mandatory is the HEA. Favourite authors include Mary Balogh, Susanna Kearsley, Joanna Bourne, Tammara Webber, Kristen Ashley, Shannon Stacey, Sarah Mayberry, JD Robb/Nora Roberts, KA Mitchell, Marie Sexton, Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, just to name a few. You can find her on Twitter: @kaetrin67.

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