Content Guidance: This book contains fatphobia and an open-door sex scene that includes coercion; therefore, this review includes discussions regarding the treatment of those issues, including quotes.
This book review also contains spoilers.
I picked up this book because it was inspired by Emma. Emma is my favorite book and I reread it about once a year, so I was excited to read a contemporary romance in which we get an open-door scene between Emma and Mr. Knightley. Unfortunately, my experience reading it did not meet my expectations.
Hart did a disservice in marketing Wasted Words as inspired by Emma. While I saw some parallels, the emotional core of Austen’s masterpiece is stripped away and replaced by classic 90s teen romcom tropes; but all the characters in Wasted Words are in their midtwenties, so it feels disjointed. I see more parallels with Clueless, Never Been Kissed, and 10 Things I Hate About You than Emma.
Wasted Word’s version of Emma’s character, Cam, is at the core of the book’s issues because while we get Tyler’s point-of-view, it’s Cam’s worldview that drives the book. At the beginning of the book, Cam, the Emma character, is still a cocky matchmaker who claims she doesn’t want a match for herself—but all her reasoning for this is based on a core high school memory of a popular boy having sex with her and then going back to his popular girlfriend the next day because Cam isn’t cool enough. Even though there is nearly a decade between this event and the beginning of Wasted Words, during which Cam has had other relationships and sexual partners, she is still so insecure about it that she classifies everyone based on who they were in school: geeks only pair with geeks, jocks only pair with jocks. This type of classification worked in Clueless because they’re high school kids, but it does not translate well with a woman in her midtwenties living in NYC. With that setting alone, there were so many hierarchies to explore, and I wish the classism present in Emma (which is cultural and systemic, not just Emma’s) could’ve been translated through Cam in a way that was more appropriate for the setting and characters of Wasted Words.
I think Cam’s insecure bibliophile characterization is Hart’s attempt to make the Emma character more “likable,” but it doesn’t sit well with me, and not just because Emma doesn’t like reading and Cam is a bit fatphobic (“And of all the women in Wasted Words dressed in spandex, she was the only one who didn’t have an errant lump or bump – just the soft, sultry curve of her breaks to her hips.” Page 74). Emma is an incredibly complex character who is secure and vain, and she is experiencing loneliness for the first time because her best friend and surrogate mother moved out. Her journey is about her world expanding and learning what healthy and unhealthy friendships look like. We lost most of this journey with Cam, which removes the buildup to the bowling scene (Box Hill) and makes Cam’s final fight about Bayleigh (Harriet) and Martin (Mr. Martin) unwarranted and melodramatic.
(I did like how Bayleigh calls Cam out on her meddling and treatment of Martin, though.)
Wasted Words is focused on the romance between Cam and Tyler. The dynamics of their friendship as roommates are lovely: they make each other food, watch college football every Saturday, and listen to each other—all while checking each other out. It was frustrating that the first one-hundred pages are filled with Cam and Tyler expressing attraction and emotion for each other but never saying it out loud. And then, when they finally get together, it’s not a healthy dynamic because of Cam’s continual insecurity about their different “shelves.” When they finally have sex, Cam is trying to break up with Tyler and Tyler uses her physical desire for him to make her promise to choose him and leave her insecurities behind.
So, by the time the third-act breakup happens, I no longer believed in this relationship. Cam’s revelations come too easily, and her grand gesture at the end (see: Heath Ledger in the bleachers) felt forced. In the end, their romance is unhealthy and they’re better off breaking up and working on themselves.
Which is not what I expected to say after reading a romance inspired by Emma and Mr. Knightley.