Spencer doesn’t make decisions anymore. It’s easier and safer for her to let other people choose things for her. So she’s reluctant but compliant when her fiancée signs up for a “Be Your Best Bride” class at the gym.
Rebecca doesn’t want to lead the class; she cares about real fitness, not coaxing vapid image-obsessed women to go down a dress size. An additional irritant is the disturbingly passive Spencer, who seems to have no backbone at all.
Spencer’s scared of Rebecca, and Rebecca has little sympathy for Spencer. They meet only in a place that neither of them wants to be. It’s not the ideal start to romance, but feelings blossom nonetheless.
This is an atypical romance because one of the pair is in a relationship with someone else for most of the book. That’s not normally the way things are done, because it weakens the “one true love” aspect of the couple, and causes all sorts of messy problems with infidelity and so on. It’s not as easy to root for a protagonist who has betrayed somebody who, however much they aren’t right for her, deserves better treatment. Your moral scruples may be different, but I found it did slightly hamper my investment in the narrative.
Whether you view this separation from convention as a positive or not depends on what you’re looking for; The Shape of You isn’t really a fluffy read, but something more complex, without the edges smoothed off and everything packaged nicely for the Happily Ever After. Because of the timeframe of the book and Spencer’s arc, the focus is really more on the lead up to a relationship than the relationship itself; it’s one that will progress and deepen, but the book takes us to the start of that, not the end. It’s best to view The Shape of You as a book about a romance, rather than a romance in the general sense.
In keeping with being not-quite a romance, the narrative is not always fixed on the couple and their relationship. There’s a lot of back- and side-story explored her, giving the characters a better-rounded identity. We get to see their lives apart from each other, and how they relate to the world around them in more depth. They feel like real people going through something in the real world, and that’s a definite strength of the book.
In places, the author goes a little heavy on the subtext. I am all for subtext and metaphor being employed, but it can get a little much, and when subtext is laboured enough to become simple text then you lose the complexity in clumsiness. Any one of the metaphors would be fine on its own, but three symbolic links between Spencer’s inner life and outer world in a short space is a touch too much.
The Shape of You is best described as interesting more than fun. The characters are well-drawn and the situation is realistic and correspondingly messy. As an exploration of that, it’s quite compelling, but it’s not a passionate or feel-good love story. I enjoyed it, and was drawn in, but there wasn’t much of the emotional payoff that you want from a narrative, particularly a romance. Realism is just as valid an aim as escapism, but it does mean that the book simply ends more than climaxes. If you’re looking for a feel-good romance, this isn’t the one for you; if you want something quieter and more contemplative, it might meet your needs
I received a copy of this book through NetGalley. I mention this to avoid the appearance of partiality.