Over the past year, we’ve seen a lot of popular authors make the leap from the world of YA fiction to the adult market—penning fantasies, romances, and everything in between as they look for ways to expand their audiences and, often, to tell spicier and more complex stories. Only occasionally, however, do we see it go the other way—Casey McQuiston tested the waters of YA romance last spring with I Kissed Shara Wheeler, and this month sees bestselling author Talia Hibbert do the same with Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute, a frankly adorable childhood-best-friends-to-rivals-to-something-more romance that goes down like the sweetest sort of hot chocolate on a blustery day.
If you—or anyone in your life—are even a casual fan of romance novels, you’ve probably heard of Hibbert, whose bestselling The Brown Sisters trilogy (Get a Life, Chloe Brown, Take a Hint, Dani Brown, and Act Your Age, Eve Brown) has rightly piled up both fans and critical acclaim, thanks to its charming heroines, great dialogue, and effortless sense of fun. It’s not always easy for authors with demonstrated skills in certain genres to transfer them to a different one, but Hibbert manages to bring everything that works in her adult fiction to her first YA effort, grounding the romance in contemporary coming-of-age issues involving family expectations, growing up, and realizing the aspirations you once had for your life might no longer fit the person you’re becoming.
The story follows two Black British teens who were once best friends: Celine Bangura, an academically driven, whipsmart perfectionist who runs a popular TikTok about conspiracy theories, and Bradley Graeme, a charming and popular soccer player, who struggles with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. The two had a mysterious falling out four years prior to the events of this story (and sussing out what precisely happened between them—and how each interpreted it—is part of the ride here) and now go out of their way to avoid one another. But when they both decide to participate in the Breakspeare Enrichment survival course program in the hopes of winning a full-ride university scholarship: Celine so she can rub her success in her absentee father’s face, Brad so he can use his college loans to pay for a housing situation that’s a bit more bearable for his obsessive-compulsive disorder. As a result, they find themselves repeatedly thrown together in the sort of wild team building, trust, and survival exercises that will not only force them to confront their own failings but discover their own truths. As Celine attempts to force herself out of her socially avoidant comfort zone and Bradley does his best to manage his OCD in a high-stress environment, they figure out not only how much they’re capable of—but how much they still mean to each other.
Much like the best romance novels, Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute doesn’t rock the boat when it comes to its central formula. Nothing you read here will shock you, and the story’s emotional beats are both well-trod and deeply familiar. And yet, Hibbert’s incredibly well-crafted dialogue, featuring both laugh-out-loud funny banter and delicately conveyed emotions, makes both Celine and Brad relatable protagonists, and her focus on each’s individual struggles to relate to the world around them is deftly and carefully handled. We love a story with deliberate and meaningful mental health representation, and the depiction of Bradley’s journey with OCD is extremely well done. As for Celine, the omnipresent anger and resentment caused by her abandonment issues feel honest and natural rather than exploitative, and Hibbert deftly unpacks the trauma she’s still dealing with as a result of her father’s absence without using it as a crutch for her occasionally bad or closed-off behavior.
Celine and Bradley’s attraction won’t surprise anyone who has ever read any story like this in the past, but Hibbert makes the could-be predictable beats of their romance fun by leaning into the drama of it all. For the first half of the book, Brad and Celine act as though it’s physically painful to inhabit the same classroom as one another, talking to each other takes a Herculean effort, and being partnered for an assignment is basically the end of the world. (All of this, of course, is made more delicious by the fact that their moms are BFFs.) And though their academic rivalry is an honest one, the tension between the pair is clearly fueled by something that goes much deeper than the grades they get. By putting the pair in direct competition with one another (at least, until they’re forced to work together to succeed), Hibbert allows us to see how, they still push each other to be the best versions of themselves, even when that version is being actively awful. That they’re great together even when they don’t necessarily want to be, is definitely part of their charm.
Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute isn’t going to break a ton of new ground in this genre. And you know what? That’s okay—it doesn’t particularly want or have to. Instead, it’s an emotional and satisfying story that’s well-written and heartfelt, full of Hibbert’s trademark banter and heart. A joyful, escapist delight.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.