TW: Sexually bullying

Stand-In is a famous romance that also celebrates female friendships, openly discusses the stigma against mental illness, and allows the main character space to explore the complexities of being biracial. It does all of this without feeling unbalanced or deviating from the romance that is the center of the plot. I listened to this on Audible and the narrator, Philippa Soo, does a wonderful job of delivering the story.

Gracie Reed is in a precarious position. She was fired by her obnoxious boss, Todd, who sexually harassed her. Todd is smart enough not to do anything in front of anyone else, and his advances (like standing too close, bumping into her) would be difficult to prove in a court of law without witnesses or recordings. Gracie’s mother has Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home, and Gracie has to continue paying for her room and has been trying to save to get her into a better facility. Basically, she needs to find a new job – fast.

She is in a cafe one day when a photographer takes her picture. It’s strange, but she doesn’t think much of it until she’s approached by one of China’s most famous actresses, Wei Fangli. The paparazzi took the picture of Gracie thinking she was Fangli, who is in town to do a show. They look alike, and Fangli offers Gracie a job. She will be Fangli’s support for social events and promotions, so Fangli can focus on the show. It’s a three-month gig, and the money will help Gracie keep her mother in a private room and leave her until she finds a new job. It sounds dangerous and unsafe, but Gracie has always done the careful and responsible thing, and she wants to be a little spontaneous now.

Fangli’s costar and close friend, heartthrob Sam Yao, will accompany Gracie to most of these promotions and help her play the role of Fangli. He thinks the whole idea is stupid, and is initially very cold to him.

This book is told entirely from Gracie’s first person POV, so we don’t get any of Sam’s thoughts. Instead, we see him begin to warm to Gracie as he realizes that she is one of the few people who see him as an actual person and not someone who can be used for his connections, fame, or money.

A big theme in this book is how celebrities are not treated like real people. At certain times when she portrays Fangli, Gracie will be accompanied by a fan who feels entitled to a selfie or an unauthorized hug. Because Sam and Fangli operate in a public space, the public feels as if they are accessible to them. It’s somewhat worse in Sam’s case because he’s the son of a famous actress and a famous director, so he hasn’t known much. It’s a lonely life for him.

Gracie helps Sam experience some normalcy by helping him get dressed and go out on the town to eat at a burger joint, or take a ferry to walk around a local island for a while. Just as Sam is her conduit to a supposedly glamorous world, she is his introduction to a more ordinary world, and it is through these shared “fish out of water” experiences that they begin to fall in love.

What I really loved about this book was that even though we got a romance between Sam and Gracie, we also get to see a really nice form of friendship between Gracie and Fangli. Fangli, like Sam, is isolated by her fame, so it’s hard to make friends outside of the industry. Gracie and Fangli bond through shared struggles with depression and anxiety. We learn that Fanglia’s real reason for needing a stay is that her mental health is fragile, and she’s been encouraged by her “team” not to seek treatment for fear of word getting out. There is a stigma against mental illness, and Fangli doesn’t want to be the actress who “has problems.”

Gracie, without being pushy, helps Fanglin come to the conclusion that she needs to talk to a professional, and she does so by explaining her struggles that led her to seek therapy and start taking SSRIs. It’s a really beautiful part of the novel because it shows two women being honest and vulnerable about an uncomfortable subject, and using that as a bridge to a close friendship.

The book also doesn’t shy away from Gracie’s feelings about being half white and half Chinese. Fangli and Sam are both Chinese nationals, and she feels like she doesn’t quite fit in with them or her community in general:

If only I knew more people like me growing up. Or even now. Anjali once told me that she could go home to her parents’ village and surround herself with people who looked like her, spoke her language and knew her history generations before.

It would probably be suffocating. I will never know because there will never be such a place for me, a community that shared my history and my family.

So we have a celebrity romance, women are friends and help each other with their mental health and reflections on identity and community. That’s a lot to pack into one book, but it all works, and delivered by Philippa Soo’s incredibly soothing voice, it was totally my jam.

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