First Star I See Tonight is Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ latest addition to her Chicago Stars series, a contemporary romance series about the players and coaches of the fictional Chicago Stars football team.
I really enjoy Phillips’ writing and this was no exception. It’s a light-hearted romp, with humor and spirited characters and just a touch of reality. This installment follows Cooper Graham (who has either two first names or two last names), a retired quarterback breaking into the nightclub business and Piper Dove, the struggling PI who’s been hired to follow him. It’s written in third person from both their perspectives.
Cooper was a nice, if lighthearted, take on a retired athlete – someone who hasn’t lost everything but still hasn’t found himself. He’s a great male lead: competitive, kind, and just a tad bit overbearing. He’s definitely the kind of male hero it’s fun to daydream about without ever turning into the guy you’d never want to meet in real life. He actually listens to Piper and, even though the set up is ripe for it, Phillips never allows him to override Piper’s wishes with a
Piper is strong and confident and frustrated by the sexism of the world. Her father raised her to be the toughest of women and then was unhappy when she wanted to use her skillset to make a living. Though this isn’t the conflict that’s driving Piper, it has clearly influenced her and I really appreciated Phillips’ inclusion of it. I think most women would can relate to a loving dad who wants to raise a tough little girl and then gets frustrated that she never turns into a dainty little lady. She’s also a little impulsive in a way I didn’t always appreciate, just because she was generally so
Like a lot of Phillips’ work, the book has a bit of adventure and a dash of danger (which does work to push the characters into an “AHA!” moment). The plot moves really quickly without ever losing the fun of it all, something that Phillips particularly excels at. There’s a twist that I saw coming, but being able to see it didn’t take away from the pleasure of reading the book.
But there is a major element that I struggle with in Phillips’ writing that is really troubling for me. She often includes characters of color as side characters and I feel like she often leans heavily on stereotypes to develop the characters. They’re often developed characters just…they do feel based on stereotypes. And there’s often a hint of a white savior component. In this book, she choose to include Muslim characters from an unnamed Middle Eastern…and the white main characters literally save one of the Muslim characters from a cartoonishly evil Middle Eastern Prince.
Now, Phillips does make a point to say not all rich Middle Eastern princes are villains, and she uses the opportunity to (a little clumsily) introduce several important components of Islam in a fairly positive and respectful light. I do applaud that she clearly thinks bringing in more diverse characters in romance novels is important – it absolutely is. I believe Phillips had positive intentions. And at this point in time, there is certainly some benefit to even a clumsily done inclusion of a sympathetic Muslim woman into mainstream American romance.
But that doesn’t excuse it from its faults, either, or from the fact Muslim women, like all women, deserve to be developed as individual characters in novels, informed, but not defined, by their culture, religion, and/or heritage, and certainly not written based on stereotypes or brought in as a convenient plot point to prove how good the main (white) characters are. And this isn’t the first time Phillips has handled inclusion of characters of color quite clumsily; she has several books with cringeworthy moments with black characters. (Though this is certainly the most egregious example.)
So despite how much I enjoyed this book, I don’t think I’ll be rereading it. I don’t want to demonize Phillips for trying and failing, because honestly the genre as a whole is not inclusive and generally not trying. However, I’m also not comfortable recommending the book.
If you decide to read it, maybe pick up Huda Fahmy’s upcoming book Yes, I’m Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth of Life in a Hijab as well. Fahmy writes and draws amazingly funny comics about her own life and I am so excited about her book coming out! (and, hey, pick it up if you’re not reading First Star I See Tonight, too.)