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“Sizzle Reel” Doesn’t Let Its Queer Romance Be Messy

One of the hardest things about being a person of book reviewing experience is figuring out how to talk about a book that doesn’t work for you. I don’t mean a book that is bad, per se, because honestly, that’s pretty easy. What I mean is a book that does what it set out to do, and does it well for the most part, but still leaves me cold. Perhaps I find it challenging because it forces me to question why the things that don’t work for me don’t work for me, and there are few things I like doing less than self reflection. But let’s try for it, shall we? Maybe we’ll learn something together.

Sizzle Reel is Carlyn Greenwald’s Adult debut — her YA debut Time Out is out in May, co-written with Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner. Sizzle Reel introduces us to Luna Roth, an aspiring cinematographer who is stuck working at a talent agency underneath a capricious and very Hollywood™ boss. She has just come out to herself as bisexual, and she is tangled in all the classic coming out conundrums. How does one come out to friends, to family or at work? For Luna, this is complicated by the fact that she has no idea how to flirt with women, no idea how to tell if a woman is queer, and no tangible sexual history to speak of. Her best friend and fellow queer, Romy, is thrilled about this news, but Luna is more concerned with figuring out a way to get off her boss’ desk and onto the set of A-List actress Valeria Sullivan’s directorial debut. Once she does, sparks start flying between her and Valeria. Can she balance this new and exciting relationship, her friends, and work? *DUN DUN DUN*

Let’s pause for a minute here. I never know how to deal with the concept of spoilers in a romance, because we all know how they end. What makes a romance successful is the journey we take to get to that pairing, and if it feels earned. So yes, I am going to break down the way the proverbial relationship cookie crumbles here. Gird your loins!

Technically, this is a love triangle romance. And because I hinted at some self reflection and exploration here, I will tell you that is not a trope I find myself reaching for a lot. I don’t hate it, but something about it always bugs me — maybe just the simple fact that I have never had to choose between two people who want to date me, and I am jealous! Here, I think the love triangle is more of an issue structurally. We spend a lot of time getting to know Valeria and Luna, and even though it is clear that Romy is upset about this relationship, there hasn’t been enough time dedicated to these two best friends for me to want to root for them to be together. Part of the issue is the sheer number of emotional beats Greenwald is trying to hit in every other page, especially in the beginning. Luna is working through a lot: coming out, dealing with a bad boss, worrying about not being sexually experienced enough, worrying about getting trapped in a job that she doesn’t like. It doesn’t leave a lot of room to build out a friendship that feels deep and meaningful, which in turn makes it harder for me to buy into the romantic feelings.

For example, the book opens with Luna after therapy, heading to work, nervous and excited to tell Romy she is bisexual. I just couldn’t quite square how close this friendship was supposed to be with the simple fact that Luna felt it was necessary to formally come out to her longtime best friend who has long been queer. Which is not to say that never happens, but as a person who came out in my mid twenties myself, conversations with my friends were integral to that journey. If I had ever looked at one of them and said “I want to tell you I am gay” they would have looked at me like I had 15 heads and been like “Yeah we know you absolute dyke, are we going to brunch or what?”

Of course people are different, and come to their sexualities in a host of different ways. It was just one of the many moments where Sizzle Reel felt…too serious? Almost? It’s not like I read romance only for the fluff, I like a romance that deals with dark stuff. The specific trope here is the Hollywood romance, and these romances are almost always about some kind of boundary-crossing workplace romantic scenario — that’s kind of a large part of the draw, in my opinion. It’s clear that Greenwald, who worked in Hollywood before moving to publishing, has mixed to negative feelings about her time in the industry and does not want to co-sign any bad practices. That’s fine — good even! It’s just….not exactly fun to read? It has the unfortunate effect of reading like a tweet from someone who has been online for too long. You know how The Very Online™ never say: “Wow I love going to the grocery store?” They say: “I love going to the grocery store (a thing I know I am privileged to be able to afford and access and also grocery deserts are a real thing!)” It’s that urge to make sure no one reads you in bad faith, (a fool’s errand, truly) and it makes it hard to connect to the characters as real people.

And lo, we have, at long last, arrived at my real issue. Everything about this book feels like it was written to not piss anyone off, which makes it feel too uncanny valley for any of the emotional character beats to land. Lending to this, perhaps, is the fact that Luna doesn’t read to me like a 24 year old in 2023; she reads like a 24 year old in 2012. Her level of familiarity with queerness doesn’t track for someone who would have been 15 at the same time that, like, Drag Race was in its seventh season. Like, her coming out is inspired by a crush on Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Are 24 year olds watching that show? I don’t know, because I am quite literally too damn old to know what they are up to, but my gut says probably not?

Still, the book as a whole isn’t bad! I really liked a lot of the early romance building with Valeria; their conversations and flirting felt natural and easy. And look, my taste isn’t objective, it’s very possible that I am just too cranky and too online to approach this book with an open heart. I just couldn’t escape the feeling that this was someone writing for the internet, not for themselves, and that’s what bugs me. I don’t want Twitter and TikTok discourse to dictate how books are written. I don’t want writers to feel like they can’t write characters who don’t always say the right thing or do the right thing. I want to read books with messy people who have dumb inside jokes with their friends. I want to feel like I’ve logged off when I read. Otherwise, what’s the point?


Sizzle Reel by Carlyn Greenwald comes out tomorrow, April 18.

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Christina Tucker

Christina Tucker is writer and podcaster living in Philadelphia. Find her on Twitter or Instagram!

Christina has written 280 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. i can very much understand this frustration, christina, and am so grateful for an honest but thoughtful and generous review here! i’ll still probably read it AND appreciate having these expectations set

  2. You totally nailed a feeling I’ve been having with a lot of recently published romances. I hadn’t been able to put it into words myself, but that uncanny valley feeling is exactly what it is — everything trying to be as even-keeled and Correct as possible but just not feeling alive or real.

  3. i’m pretty ambivalent to messy. not sure if it’s from being old and lacking patience with nonsense, or the world being too much and messy just feels stressful.

    thanks for the review – i’m really grateful for all the book looks.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this review and comments. I’ve also read some romances recently with that too careful / uncanny valley feeling and I don’t much care for it. It’s too superficial for my taste. I read romance because I want that emotional connection – I want to feel it between the characters and I want to feel connected to them. And it’s hard to connect to characters who sound like they’re straight from a self help book or internet guide.

    But I’ve been reading romance for a looong time (since the late 80s for straight romance and late 2000s for queer romance) and I have read a lot of romances that just carelessly perpetuate all sorts of toxic nonsense (misogyny, racism, fat shaming, slut shaming, etc) and I really, really hate that.

    I’ve read (and written) my fair share of reviews decrying that sort of stuff and I’ve started to wonder if this too careful trend is a reaction to that or over correction to it.

    I do feel a little bad for authors who are like, ok, I better not write anything offensive and then they get reviews like this. And I also 100% believe that it’s possible to have a romance finds the balance, that lets their characters be a little messy, make some mistakes but also doesn’t perpetuate sexist or racist stereotypes. Or something.

    • I’m with you. I’m not a long-time romance reader but I’ve read a LOT of romance in the last decade or so.

      This is definitely recency bias and only my own opinion, but I have lately felt like Meryl Wilsner, Talia Hibbert, Alison Cochrun (warning: I do tend to like my adult romances spicy, so YMMV), and Tess Sharpe for YA do a great job of finding the balance of having really messy, sometimes very hard-edged, characters and relationships without falling in to stereotyping, sexism, misogyny, and a bunch of the other crap that characterized a lot of earlier eras of romance. And they are definitely some of my favorite romance authors right now!

      That said, sometimes I also want something a little simpler or easier to read, so I will probably read this at some point. But it’s good to know what to expect going in!

    • THISTHISTHIS! That uncanny squeaky-clean modern romance feeling is exactly what I got out of Something to Talk About (another Hollywood romance that took ages to get to the employer/employee age gap fantasy I was looking for and sorely disappointed). I think that romance authors now are trapped in a holding pattern like you describe, and so their solution of dedicating too much real estate to verbalizing the importance of basic concepts like consent and romantic ethics really does remove readers from the world they’re trying to create. I think it’s not a stretch to point out that this feels an awful lot like Misogyny Lite, where there’s a patronizing undertone to the assumption that an audience (that’s mostly women ofc) isn’t going to be willing to set aside their real-world experiences for the sake of engaging with art and thus needs a lot of detailed reminders on the summary, back cover, opening chapters, and throughout the novel that no, actually, it’s *really* urgent to remember that your real-life relationships shouldn’t look like this novel where two characters fall in love in the span of four hundred pages or less! I’ve seen this same thing pop up in het romance novels too, and I really wish romance authors could take what they need from their predecessors without the nasty biases you mentioned. That’s a huge reason that I reach more for historical romance nowadays; it’s nice to see how the genre has progressed a lot in terms of inclusivity, and I feel like that gets put on display without as much time hammering in reality checks the way modern-set romance has been trending (plus, historical romance is a lot more consistently steamy, which is another deficit in modern-set romance I’ve been side-eyeing for a while now).

  5. i just finished this book and yep! this review nails it!

    also i could NOT suspend my disbelief about how naive luna was about so many aspects of queer life while also being able to shoot the shit with her nb lesbian bestie with ease. like? this woman has lived in one of the gayest counties in the country for her entire life and she still thinks virginity is real?

    also justice for valeria, the coolest character in a romance about much less mature people

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