Aspirational is a term that we loved to use when I was still in advertising (and by 'loved', I mean a mixture of sarcasm, amusement, and fondness). I don't even know if it's a legit word. "We want it to be aspirational," we were always told, whether we were making brochures for mid-rise condominiums or sale ads for a popular mall. Our team knew aspirational more than we knew the back of our hands, because let's face it, we were never asked to spend hours staring at the back of our hands.
But I've always believed that one place where that term belonged was in romance. Being aspirational is inherent in almost every love story. It's the anak-mayaman who falls in love with the household help; it's the romantic groveling scene that's tacked on at the end of every Hollywood rom-com. It's the reason I read chick lit -- the strange suspension of disbelief that yes, a finance lawyer can also be a domesticated goddess, that yes, a size-14 has-been pop star can find love with a hot private eye. Without that aspirational hoopla, we'd be reading a totally different genre. For me, a good romance would be the one that makes me feel happy with the life I'm living, but tells me that I can still indulge in the life I could almost have.
That's what I felt with Mina Esguerra's No Strings Attached. It's the third of her books that I've read and no matter how much I've gushed over the other ones, this has become my favorite. In this story, twenty-nine year old Carla deals with being the youngest and only unmarried single female in her barkada. But just before she turns 30, she meets impulsive, independent Dante -- boss' son, college prof, cool older brother, and five years younger than her. (I think that if my friends are reading this entry, they'd be laughing right now.)
What makes the story work is that despite what I would call the 'aspirational' stuff (by her own admission, Carla has become 'exponentially more attractive (p9),' having 'learned the importance of correct clothing sizes and flattering haircuts (p9)'), it still feels very grounded to me. I thought Carla's reaction to Dante is very real. She doesn't want to rock the boat when this new guy comes into her life. She has her hesitations but she weighs her options and decides to just go with the flow. I like how elements like this make a chick lit heroine much more accessible to the reader. What's more, Ms Esguerra easily shows us how a guy like Dante can be compelling enough to sweep Carla off her feet. Dante is so unlike the typical guy I would fawn over in a romance novel, but he is given such maturity and charisma that I found myself squeeing over the simple things: the way he made sure Carla would see him again, the way he texted her, the way he was when they were with his friends. His and Carla's relationship is drama-lite (not exactly the drama-free one they wanted) and that just makes it all the more believable to me.
In the end, No Strings Attached is not just about getting the guy. It's about making a relationship work so that he stays gotten. There's a studied air in the way this whirlwind romance is written: a great balance between what a woman could aspire for and what she knows she can keep.