Audiobook Review: The Comeback by Lily Chu

Title: The Comeback
Author: Lily Chu
Narrator: Phillipa Soo
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: July 14, 2022
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 12 hours 14 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Audible download
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Who is Ariadne Hui?

• Laser-focused lawyer diligently climbing the corporate ladder
• The “perfect” daughter living out her father’s dream
• Shocking love interest of South Korea’s hottest star

Ariadne Hui thrives on routine. So what if everything in her life is planned down to the minute: That’s the way she likes it. If she’s going to make partner in Toronto’s most prestigious law firm, she needs to stay focused at all times.

But when she comes home after yet another soul-sucking day to find an unfamiliar, gorgeous man camped out in her living room, focus is the last thing on her mind. Especially when her roommate explains this is Choi Jihoon, her cousin freshly arrived from Seoul to mend a broken heart. He just needs a few weeks to rest and heal; Ari will barely even know he’s there. (Yeah, right.)

Jihoon is kindness and chaos personified, and it isn’t long before she’s falling, hard. But when one wrong step leads to a world-shaking truth, Ari finds herself thrust onto the world stage: not as the competent, steely lawyer she’s fought so hard to become, but as the mystery woman on the arm of a man the entire world claims to know. Now with her heart, her future, and her sense of self on the line, Ari will have to cut through all the pretty lies to find the truth of her relationship…and discover the Ariadne Hui she’s finally ready to be.

I enjoyed last year’s The Stand-In, Lily Chu’s debut, released an Audible Original (and later, as a paperback) — so when I saw that a new Audible novel was being released this year by the same author, and once again with the amazing Phillipa Soo as narrator, naturally I had to grab it! \

The new book, The Comeback, brings some of The Stand-In‘s elements to a fresh story. Once again, we have an ordinary Canadian woman who ends up in the ultimate wish-fulfillment scenario of finding love with one of the world’s biggest stars — in this case, a K-pop idol.

Ariadne is a work-obsessed lawyer whose sole focus is making partner with her conservative, almost-all-white law firm. (She’s dismayed to overhear a coworker describe her as the firm’s “diversity hire”). Ariadne is Canadian born and of Chinese descent, but she constantly finds herself having to explain where she’s from and that no, she doesn’t speak Chinese and was actually born in Toronto. Her father, also a lawyer, is overly invested in Ari’s career and sends her link to business articles on how to impress the boss and how to get ahead.

Ari tells herself that she’s fine and happy. So what if she never actually takes any of the amazing vacations she fantasizes about? Making partner is all that matters!

Or so she thinks… until her orderly life is disrupted when she comes home to find a strange man in her apartment. After a comical misunderstanding (kitchen knives are involvled), she learns that this is Jihoon, her roommate Hannah’s cousin from Korea, who just needs a place to get away and be quiet for a while after a bad break-up. He seems nice enough, and Hannah is her best friend, so Ari agrees, so long as she can keep working around the clock.

But Jihoon is hard not to notice, from the expensive skincare products spread out all over her bathroom counters to the ramen in her kitchen, and their brief daily encounters turn into texting GIFs, sharing food, and eventually, exploring Toronto together. And the more time Ari spends with him, the more they seem to connect. Okay, yes, he’s super hot, but he’s also kind, intelligent, supportive, and interested in Ari in a way no one else has ever been.

Their time together is cut short, first by the early return of Hannah, and then by the arrival of two of Jihoon’s friends, come to bring him home. They’re not just any friends, though — they’re two of the five members of the enormously huge K-pop group Star Loon (Star Lune? Starloon? Can’t tell from listening to an audiobook!). And guess what? It turns out Jihoon is actually their lead singer, stage name Min, whose video Ari had just watched a few days earlier.

Ari is devastated by Jihoon’s lies (lies of omission still count, especially when the truth he hid is “oh, by the way, I’m an idol with millions of obsessed fans”). Although on the verge of falling in love (who is she kidding? she’s already fallen!), Ari is terrified by Jihoon’s fame and lack of privacy, and breaks off their growing relationship as he departs for Korea.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there, and we get to see what happens when Ari travels to Seoul for a work trip, reunites with Jihoon, attends a VIP Starlune concert, and eventually, gets spotted in an intimate moment with Jihoon. Can their love survive her “outing”, especially when “Starries” brand her a “sasaeng” (stalker/obsessed fan)?

This may all sound rather silly, but it’s actually got quite a bit of emotion and thoughtfulness, and is a very engaging, absorbing listen. Ariadne is a wonderful main character, talented and smart, obviously, but with plenty of blind spots. Her single focus on work keeps her from examining just why she wants so badly to please her father, why she’s never reconciled with her free-spirited older sister, and why she wants a career in law in the first place. Once she opens herself up to love and all the messy emotions that go with it, she starts to see how many limits she’s imposed on her own life through her strict devotion to meeting other people’s expectations, and it actually starts to free her enough to consider what she really wants out of life and how she wants to live.

Jihoon is, perhaps, too good to be true. Because yes, he’s a pop idol with his face on everything from cereal boxes to bottled water, and a video of him taking a nap for five minutes has millions of views, but he’s really just a nice, sensitive guy who wants to experience true connection with someone real. He loves his bandmates and his fans and appreciates all of the advantages he’s gotten from becoming an idol, and yet he also yearns to write the music that matters to him, and to spend time with a woman who loves him for himself, not for his manufactured image.

The Comeback is sweet and entertaining, and even thought-provoking. We can dream of a gorgeous celebrity falling for us, but would we really want the constant surveillance and online criticism (which is putting it mildly) that goes with it? Ari’s dilemma and heartache feel real, because yes, she’s fallen for this man, but she’s nowhere near sure she can handle the demands of his public life — not to mention the public shaming that seems headed her way once the company that controls Starlune gets involved in managing the messaging.

As with The Stand-In, the audiobook narration is a treat. Phillipa Soo is terrific voicing Ariadne, and captures the other characters really well too. I have the same complaint here that I did with the previous book, however — this is a first-person story, and in scenes with dialogue, it can be very difficult to tell whether Ari is saying something out loud or whether certain lines are asides that she’s thinking to herself. I’ve heard narrators who’ve managed to change up the delivery/intonation enough to make it clear, but here, it can be confusing, and there’s not always enough context to tell the difference.

Other than that, though, the audiobook is delightful. This is not a heavy story by any means, but it definitely kept my attention — enough that I found myself driving the longer way to my destinations just to get a few more minutes of listening time into my day!

PS – I am not a K-pop fan… but after listening to The Comeback, I think I may need to expand my horizons!

PPS – If you’re as ignorant of K-pop culture as I am (was), check out some basics:

Kpop Idol – Life and Career of Korean Music Artists
2022’s Top K-Pop Artists
50 Most Liked Kpop Videos of 2022

Enjoy!



Audiobook Review: The Stand-In by Lily Chu

Title: The Stand-In
Author: Lily Chu
Narrator: Phillipa Soo
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: July 15, 2021
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 10 hours 55 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Audible Plus Catalog
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

How to upend your life:
–Get fired by gross, handsy boss
–Fail to do laundry (again)
–Be mistaken for famous Chinese actress
–Fall head-first into glitzy new world

Gracie Reed is doing just fine. Sure, she was fired by her overly “friendly” boss, and yes, she still hasn’t gotten her mother into the nursing home of their dreams, but she’s healthy, she’s (somewhat) happy, and she’s (mostly) holding it all together.

But when a mysterious SUV pulls up beside her, revealing Chinese cinema’s golden couple Wei Fangli and Sam Yao, Gracie’s world is turned on its head. The famous actress has a proposition: Due to their uncanny resemblance, Fangli wants Gracie to be her stand-in. The catch? Gracie will have to be escorted by Sam, the most attractive—and infuriating—man Gracie’s ever met.

If it means getting the money she needs for her mother, Gracie’s in. Soon Gracie moves into a world of luxury she never knew existed. But resisting Sam, and playing the role of an elegant movie star, proves more difficult than she ever imagined—especially when she learns the real reason Fangli so desperately needs her help. In the end, all the lists in the world won’t be able to help Gracie keep up this elaborate ruse without losing herself… and her heart.

The Stand-In is an Audible Original in which an ordinary woman suddenly gets the chance to experience the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It’s a fun Cinderella story, but it helps to suspend disbelief A LOT to truly enjoy it.

When we meet Gracie, she has a job she hates thanks to a boss who sexually harasses her constantly — but rather than making a fuss or going to HR to report him, Gracie tries even harder to blend into the background, dressing dully and using makeup that’s neutral and not the least bit eye-catching. Gracie’s mother, a Chinese immigrant to Canada, drilled into Gracie’s head that she should always try to fit in, not stand out.

But when Gracie is mistaken for Chinese actress Wei Fangli in a coffee shop, her world changes dramatically. Caught on camera by a paparazzo on a day when she’d called in sick, Gracie is fired by her creepy boss and plunges into despair. How will she afford the nursing home her mother needs if she has no income? With her mother’s dementia steadily progressing, Gracie feels the pressures mounting, and none of her daily planners and apps seem to help her get her life under control. (Remember the bit about the planners — this is important later.)

Gracie is approached by Wei Fangli and her super-hot costar Sam Yao with a proposition: Because of their similar looks, Fangli wants to hire Gracie — for a huge amount of money — to be her public double. Gracie will dress and act like Fangli and attend social engagements in her place, allowing Fangli to just focus on her theater performances and otherwise avoid the pressure of a public life.

Against her better judgment, Gracie accepts the offer. She needs that money! But she soon learns that she likes it, too. She gets to dress in gorgeous clothes, live in a luxury hotel suite, and spend lots and lots of time with Sam. Yes, she feels guilty for essentially lying to everyone she meets as Fangli, but she keeps reminding herself that she’s doing it for her mother.

The Stand-In is a fun fairy tale of a story, with echoes of The Prince and the Pauper too. Wouldn’t every “ordinary” person love the chance to walk in a celebrity’s (high-priced designer) shoes? I wouldn’t say the plot is believable — I mean, they can’t really be that identical, can they? But it’s certainly amusing to see Gracie trying to master the art of posing on a red carpet, being photographed from every angle, and speaking as if she’s used to being the center of attention.

There are some interesting ideas too about public personas and what it means to always be on, especially as compared with someone like Gracie who’s been taught all her life not to make waves. Additionally, Grace is a biracial woman living in Toronto who doesn’t speak Mandarin, yet is impersonating a Mandarin-speaking Chinese actress and is also trying to connect with a mother who slips more and more into the language of her youth. Gracie has to deal with issues related to identity and race, on the one hand being seen as Chinese rather than Canadian, yet being seen by Chinese people she interacts with as not Chinese enough.

There’s also a love story, of course, and while it comes across as absolute wish-fulfillment (the sexiest man in the world falling for an ordinary woman!), it does have some very sweet moments of flirtation, sharing secrets and wishes, and making connections. Also, Sam really is a great character, and it’s easy to see how some of his big romantic gestures might make anyone with a heartbeat swoon.

I really liked Gracie’s blossoming friendship with Fangli and the ways in which they end up helping and supporting one another. I wasn’t crazy about the plotline revolving around Gracie inventing a daily planner. While I suppose the point is to show Gracie finding a way to take control of her own life and make a splash as a businesswoman, there’s too much time spent on her figuring out ways to organize her tasks and to-do lists.

Plotwise, The Stand-In really is more romantic fairy tale than real-life contemporary drama. A lot of the developments are ridiculous if you think about them too hard. If you can put aside the need to say “but this could never happen!”, it’s still a fun listen. I would also add my main quibble about the plot — the old “listening through a doorway and jumping to conclusions” romance trope. This makes me batty — a character overhears a conversation, immediately misinterprets what they hear, and then take dramatic action based on this misinterpretation. It’s just so dumb. At least verify what you think you’ve heard!! Sigh… but then where would the drama be?

In terms of the audiobook narration, it’s a treat to listen to Hamilton star Phillipa Soo. This is her first full-length audiobook — you can read more about her experience recording it here. Overall, I think she does a good job voicing the different characters and making them distinct. The one complaint I have is that in dialogue scenes, it can be hard to tell whether Gracie is thinking a response to herself or saying the response to the other person — her voice isn’t actually different for asides, so it does get confusing.

The Stand-In is an Audible Original and is available (free) as part of the Audible Plus Catalog. For those who have access, I recommend giving it a listen. The story is sweet and engaging, and despite the fairy tale-esque twists and revelations, the characters are really special and will stick with you.

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