The fake relationship trope—pretend lovers who wind up falling in love—is a beloved rom-com staple, equally at home in ’90s movies like While You Were Sleeping and recent books including Ali Hazelwood’s The Love Hypothesis. “For as silly as it is, it’s such a hopeful trope,” says author K.J. Micciche. “It can make a reader feel like there are endless opportunities to fall in love.”

Micciche’s book is one of many this season that hinges on the enduring ploy. PW asked authors for their thoughts on its continued appeal.

The pretenders

In A Storybook Wedding (Sourcebooks Casablanca, May)—Micciche’s “sparkling sophomore outing,” per PW’s review—librarian and aspiring YA author Cecily Jane Allerton and her MFA instructor Nate Ellis are caught kissing by Cecily’s snobby classmates. To quiet the haters, avoid accusations of fraternizing by program administrators, and save Nate’s career, the pair fake-marry. “It’s an outlandish moment,” Micciche says. “The reader thinks, ‘Whoa, that’s crazy,’ and, I hope, is willing to follow along for the next 200 pages.”

Livy Hart, author of Great Dating Fake Off (Amara, Aug.), likewise enjoys the theatricality and preposterousness of the trope. “What makes it so popular is the performance element,” she says. “Every fake dating book has that moment where two people are aware they’re putting on this show.”

Her new book features not one but two fake relationships: Nora and Reid, who’ve quietly burned for each other over dozens of meet-cutes in Nora’s bookstore, each end up fake-dating a friend in order to mollify that friend’s meddling family and must maintain their respective charades while managing their feelings for each other. “As a writer, I can do things that aren’t realistic,” Hart says, “because there’s that facade of performance.”

Deploying a popular trope, says author Sarah T. Dubb, allows writers to play to, and with, expectations. When there’s a fake relationship plot, “our readers know the characters are going to be at a party, playing it up for others. They’re going to kiss to prove they’re a couple. They’re both going to say, ‘This is fake.’ It comes built-in with anticipated moments.”

In Dubb’s Birding with Benefits (Gallery, June), recent divorcée Celeste Johanssen finds herself, through a series of miscommunications, playing fake girlfriend and field partner to birding enthusiast John Maguire. Both characters are in their 40s and have sworn off dating, Dubb says, but agree to a friends-with-benefits situation for the duration of a birding competition. PW calls Dubb’s debut “charming” and praises its “red-hot” love scenes, adding, “Dubb pulls off the fake-boyfriend trope with ease and mines her own experiences with birding in Tucson to add authenticity to John’s passion.”

Yours truly

Were there any doubt that the fake relationship is having a moment, several seasoned romance writers are exploring the plot device for the first time.

Dena Blake has written numerous tropey lesbian romances—enemies to lovers, second chance, amnesia, and others—but Three Blissful Days (Bold Strokes, Nov.) is her first fake relationship story. To spite her ex, Kendall Jackson fake-dates Ivy Patterson, who just wants her mother to stop sending her on terrible blind dates. “Kendall and Ivy dislike each other from the get-go,” Blake says. “They irritate each other. It was fun to write.” The book has banter, a slow buildup to a first kiss, and a bit of angst. “This facade isn’t their whole selves—they reveal their inner selves and make themselves vulnerable.”

In A Gamble at Sunset (Zebra, May), which launches Vanessa Riley’s new Regency series, Georgina Wilcox and nerdy composer Lord Mark Sebastian are caught kissing and, in order to save their reputations, pretend to be engaged. With the fake relationship plot, Riley says, readers get to experience the thrill of, “ ‘They’re going to bust us and figure out that we’re fake.’ This is a romance. They’re coming for that gamble.” There’s also that moment of discovery, she says. “When does it feel real? When will it become real?” PW’s starred review found much to appreciate: “Riley renders the Regency in living color, with impressive historical detail and an admirably diverse cast.”

Jean Meltzer, who’s published one romance per year since debuting with 2021’s The Matzah Ball, had fake-dating trappings in mind when she conjured Magical Meet Cute (Mira, Aug.). After antisemitic flyers blanket Faye Kaplan’s hippie town in Upstate New York, targeting her and other members of her synagogue, the lonely potter attempts to summon a golem, an ancient Jewish protector. The next day, a mysterious man turns up—and, hungover, she accidentally hits him with her bicycle. Faye can’t help but wonder whether her drunken magic had anything to do with his appearance.

In order to get the seemingly concussed and amnesiac man—who may or may not be a golem—out of the hospital, Faye pretends he’s her husband. Though the ruse doesn’t last beyond the institution’s doors, Meltzer leans on the built-in frisson of the trope. “They’re on the page, together, a lot,” she says. “They’re debating every move and every sentence. It’s an amped-up metaphor for the experience of falling in love, and it propels the writing.”

Fake dating stories are “all drama and fun,” Meltzer adds. “There’s lots of swoony ‘is-this-real, is-this-not’ tension. And for me, as someone who was surprised by love, there’s something very human about falling for someone you never expected to fall for.”

Does he know?

First-time authors, too, are finding inspiration in the fake dating trope.

Aurora Palit’s Sunshine and Spice (Berkley, Sept.) weds the conceit to a cultural norm: arranged marriage. Dev Mukherjee’s formidable mother hires a matchmaker to find him a suitable bride but is thwarted when a potential match assumes that Naomi Kelly, who has grown up without ties to their shared Bengali culture, is his girlfriend.

“The immigrant experience is unique for each person and each family,” Palit says. She wanted to explore “the perspectives of someone who might feel completely out of touch with a culture and someone who’s knee deep in it.” Deploying the fake dating trope felt just right for this context. “You don’t always know what you’re supposed to be doing or how you’re supposed to be feeling or where you fit—but there’s hope, and you deserve love.”

In The Next Best Fling (Forever, July), the first book in Gabriella Gamez’s Librarians in Love series, bookish Marcela Ortiz and ex-NFL player Theo Young fake a relationship to heal their broken hearts. “Real dating is just so hard,” Gamez says. “Better to start a relationship with fake dating.” She attributes the trope’s popularity to readers’ desire for escapism. “It’s fun to see characters flail when they start to catch feelings—‘Oh no, this wasn’t part of the deal!’—and be unable to resist. There’s a lot of that in this book.”

A former library employee herself, Gamez voraciously consumes Romance-landia BookTube and BookTok. Lately, she says, “I’ve heard influencers say they’re getting tired of the tropes.” But she and other romance authors interviewed for this article revel in its infinite iterations. “There are so many new and inventive ways that you can play with it.”

Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.

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