“I hated myself in this house. I hated what my priorities became, what I worried about, the things I said and, more so, didn’t say.”
Chloe Wang is bringing her boyfriend home for Thanksgiving in a desperate bid to convince her parents to turn down a proposal from the Kuo family to marry their son. The only problem is that Chloe doesn’t have any boyfriend, let alone one impressive enough to convince her parents she shouldn’t marry the son and heir of the most prominent family in their church community. So she turns to Rent for Your ‘Rents, a company that specializes in providing fake boyfriends guaranteed to impress traditional Asian parents at family events. Drew Chan is a starving artist side-hustling as a professional fake boyfriend after he was disowned by his family for dropping out of college to pursue his dreams. Drew has a natural sympathy for the pressure his clients are under from their families, and a talent for impressing even the most exacting parents. But when Chloe starts falling for the real Drew, not Andrew Huang the fake boyfriend, they’ll have to face the fact that his real resume is nothing like the bill of goods they’ve sold her parents.
If you like a fake dating trope, in Rent a Boyfriend Gloria Chau takes it to the next level, with Chloe actually hiring a fake boyfriend from a company that specializes in training young men specifically to impress uptight Asian parents who have a very particular standard of acceptable for their daughters. Andrew the Rent for your ‘Rents operative has been trained in everything from mah-jong to dancing, and can fake any major from art history to computer science on demand. Through alternating points of view, Chau explores the consequences of this idea for both Chloe, who hires the fake boyfriend, and Drew, who plays the role and has to compartmentalize his job from his real life. The resulting story is a mixture of funny, sappy, earnest and cute, as Chloe and Drew try to figure out whether their similarities are enough to overcome their differences, and the bizarre circumstances of their meeting.
Both Chloe and Drew have two names, and two separate selves. At home, Chloe is Jing-Jing, the pure and innocent daughter of her immigrant parents, who are deeply enmeshed in their small church community, and place a lot of value on her making a marriage with an upstanding member of their inner circle. At school she is Chloe, an economics major who focuses on her studies and doesn’t have many friends. When he’s at work, Drew is Andrew, a one syllable difference that serves as a constant reminder of the role he is playing on any given day, made to order for the parents of whatever girl he is helping this week. The rest of the time, he makes his art, and tries to find the courage to show it to anyone. Rejected by his family, he can’t quite believe his work is actually worth anything if they would abandon him over it.
Between Drew and Chloe we get two very different views on incorporating their parents’ cultures into their lives as Chinese Americans. Drew is estranged from his family, but his heritage is very much a part of his daily life and his art. By contrast, Chloe is still trying to have a relationship with her parents, but when she is away at college, she feels like an entirely separate person, one who flinches away from references to her heritage or the language her parents speak at home. Drew comes from a more working class community, while Chloe’s parents are dentists in Palo Alto, surrounded by tech money and venture capitalists.
I was a little bit worried about how the story would handle Drew’s job after he and Chloe get together, but I think Chao did a good job with resolving that question. His job isn’t treated as something to be jettisoned the moment he gets the girl, but an important part of his life and financial stability while he figures out how to make a living as an artist. Rent a Boyfriend combines a light romantic romp with earnest questions about reconciling your heritage, relating to your parents as an adult, making hard choices between what you want and what you’re willing to give up in order to have it.
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