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The Stand-In by Lily Chu

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The Stand-In

by Lily Chu
May 3, 2022 · Sourcebooks Casablanca
Contemporary Romance

TW: Sexual Harassment

The Stand-In is a celebrity romance that also celebrates female friendships, openly discusses the stigma against mental illness, and allows the main character the space to explore the complexities of being bi-racial. It does all of that without feeling unbalanced or taking away from the romance that’s 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 an untenable position. She was fired from her job by her disgusting boss, Todd, who has been sexually harassing her. Todd is smart enough not to do anything in front of anyone else, and his advances (like standing too close, brushing up against her) would be difficult to prove in a court of law without witnesses or recordings. Gracie’s mother has Alzheimers and is in a nursing home, and Gracie needs to keep paying for her room and has been trying to save up to get her into a better facility. Basically she needs to find a new job–fast.

She’s at a coffee shop one day when a photographer takes her picture. It’s weird, 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 Gracie’s picture thinking she was Fangli, who is in town to do a play. They look alike, and Fangli offers Gracie a job. She will be Fangli’s stand-in for social events and promotions, so Fangli can focus on the play. It’s a three month gig, and the money will help Gracie keep her mom in a private room and float her until she finds a new job. It sounds risky and uncertain, but Gracie has always done the cautious and responsible thing, and she wants to be a little spontaneous right now.

Fangli’s costar and close friend, heartthrob Sam Yao, will be accompanying Gracie to most of these promotions and helping her play the part of Fangli. He thinks the whole idea is foolish, and initially is pretty frosty to her.

This book is told entirely from Gracie’s first person POV, so we don’t get any of Sam’s thoughts. Rather we see him start to soften to Gracie as he realizes she’s 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 aren’t treated like actual people. At certain times when she’s portraying Fangli, Gracie will be accosted by a fan who feels entitled to a selfie or a hug without permission. Because Sam and Fangli operate in a public space, the public feels like 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 else. It’s a lonely life for him.

Gracie helps Sam experience some normalcy, helping him dress down and going out on the town to eat at a burger joint, or taking a ferry to walk around a local island for awhile. Just as Sam is her conduit into a supposedly glamorous world, she’s his introduction to a more mundane one and it’s 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 beautiful friendship form between Gracie and Fangli. Fangli, like Sam, is isolated by her fame so it’s hard to make friends that aren’t in the industry. Gracie and Fangli connect through shared struggles with depression and anxiety. We learn that Fangli’s real reason for needing a stand-in is that her mental health is fragile and she’s been encouraged by her “team” not to seek treatment for fear that word will get out. There’s a stigma against mental illness and Fangli doesn’t want to be the actress that “has issues.”

Gracie, without being pushy, helps Fangli come to the conclusion that she does need to talk to a professional, and she does so by explaining her own struggles that led her to seek therapy and start taking SSRIs. It’s a really lovely part of the novel because it shows two women being candid and vulnerable about an uncomfortable topic, 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 with her community at large:

If only I’d known more people like me growing up. Or even now. Anjali once told me she could go home to her parent’s village and be surrounded with people who looked like her, spoke her language, and knew her history generations back.

Maybe it would be stifling. I’ll never know because there will never be a place like that for me, a community who shared my history and family.

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

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