Here’s what I loved about Girl Gone Viral (and the first book in the series, The Right Swipe): Alisha Rai makes the implausible plausible by using emotional depth. That’s a pretty generic statement, so let me clarify. We all know romance has a plausibility problem: there can only be so many dukes, after all. Same is true for billionaires, if you’re into that. And how many remote cabins with just one bed can there actually be? We know it, we acknowledge it, and we enjoy it all regardless, right? But somehow, here, Alisha Rai is taking tropes that might seem delightfully implausible anywhere else – the rich lady simply HAS to run off to the country with her bodyguard!! – and imbuing them with real-world issues and emotional backstory that make it seem really realistic that the only solution to an extremely rich former model’s problem is a peach farm. No, really!
Between pulling stories from actual headlines, whether it’s the misogyny inherent in the algorithms of dating apps in the first book, or fake meet-cutes going viral in this one, and giving her characters backstories that work well in the modern world (Katrina’s modeling past and the lasting trauma her treatment gave her is something that’s widely recognizable these days, as is Jas’ PTSD and anxiety), Rai is bringing real world cred to her trope-heavy romances, and I love it.
The other thing I love? Communication, baby. I’ve said it here and lots of other places that my second-least favorite kind of romance is the kind where the entire conflict hinges on the fact that the characters can’t bring themselves to have a simple conversation. Here’s another place Girl Gone Viral turns tropes upside down. Early on, I thought we were on track to have a classic can’t-tell-them-I-like-them communications breakdown, and JUST as I started to roll my eyes, the story flipped everything around and the kind of honest conversation I love happened – and THEN the real communication conflict began, in a much more satisfying, realistic way for a book about two people with severe trauma, anxiety, PTSD, and panic disorders.
And let’s talk a little bit about mental health. This is another thing that Rai has done really well with both books; her characters are frank and honest about needing therapy (my romance mantra: THERAPY FOR EVERYONE), and we even sometimes see specifics about how they manage their mental health, particularly Katrina, who has a panic disorder that was exacerbated by trauma. We see, in the narrative, how she manages herself, how she communicates about her disorder, and – most importantly – how the story is about her, and not her mental illness. It’s an important part of her, yes, and impacts how she lives; but it’s not the focus of the story and it’s not magically ‘cured’ by good sex.
And speaking of good sex! This book had one of my favorite moments in recent sex scenes. It’s been a while since Katrina has had penetrative sex, and when she and Jas finally have PiV sex, it initially stings a bit. She tells him to go on, something we frequently see in sex scenes, normally followed by, you know, juices and things that somehow magically make it all better. Instead, Jas frowns at her, stops, tells her it’s absolutely not okay for him to hurt her, and goes and gets lube. MORE OF THIS PLEASE, ROMANCE.
Finally, the last thing I loved about this book was Katrina’s commitment to her sourdough starter. It might be because I read this during quarantine, where everybody and the New York Times cooking section is showing off their sourdough starters, but I was deeply charmed by this little detail. It was such a simple, effective way of showing a lot of facets of Katrina’s character – she feeds the thing every day without fail, she takes it with her when she travels, she cooks delicious food with it, and it is a remnant of her lost childhood with her mother. How can one little jar of yeasty goodness show so many things about a character??? Who knew?