By: Anuraag Soma
Definition of charm offensive:
A calculated campaign to use one’s personal charm to gain favour or support.
Now that’s supposed to sum up the entire story. As a matter of fact, that’s how it starts anyway. Cochrun’s debut novel “The Charm Offensive” explores the nuances of mental health, love, and sexuality while gleefully balancing such heavy-weight social rhetoric with a satirical parody of a reality dating show (*cough*The Bachelor*cough*), making it a light-hearted read.
Cochrun’s leads are 28 y/o Indian American, Dev Deshpande, a hopeless romantic whose idealism for ‘happily ever after’ could put Bollywood script writers to shame, and 27 y/o Charles Winshaw a.k.a Charlie, a stunningly handsome tech millionaire with a penchant for exercise, which the author makes sure to get through by tautologically reminding us about his eight pack washboard abs at various instances to the point it became mildly irritating. And mildly itself might be a mild understatement.
Dev has the job of his dreams as a junior producer on Ever After, a reality show presumably modeled after The Bachelor. Happy as he is in his job, Dev suffers from occasional bouts of depression. Being the best at what he does, he is now tasked with getting Charlie Winshaw camera-ready who, by the way, needs to repair his image after a public professional meltdown. Unfortunately for Charles, as wealthy and gorgeous as he is, he is also anxious, awkward, and completely uncomfortable when cameras roll.
Obviously, they’re going to fall in love. But how will this fit in Charlie’s starring role in a heteronormative series forms the core of the narrative.
Such are the bones of the story. While bordering on clichés, the manner in which Miss Cochrun puts those bones back together and fills them with life that makes “The Charm Offensive” such a great read. The author is admirable in creating sympathetic pictures of men with psychological issues that will resonate with many readers. The beauty of the relationship between Dev and Charlie is how they understand and support each other in an effort to cope with their mental health. Another aspect of the book that shines brightly is the representation given to all the colors of the LGBTQIA+ rainbow. There are asexual characters, pansexual characters, bi, lesbian, and questioning characters. Charlie himself hasn’t had an opportunity in his life to ever really consider love or his sexual orientation. It’s refreshing to see the characters in this book talk about the entire spectrum of ways a person can be, discussing not just straight versus gay, but also delving into demisexuality, gray sexuality and so much more. Moments like these enable the characters to move beyond easy definitions and labels and make them feel like well-rounded, well-developed individuals in the reader’s mind.
The one (or maybe two) thing(s) I personally loved about this book was the way it gave the “how the sausage gets made” spin to its reality dating show Ever After, the premise on which the entire book is based. The behind-the-scenes scripting of the characters (even how they make someone into a villain) is a lot of fun to read, as what viewers see on screen is just so different from what is really going on with the production. Initially, I thought that the women who were a part of the contest would be portrayed as conniving hellcats, ready to do anything to steal each other’s thunders. However, for the most part, their stories were crafted with much more nuance than that. The author also depicts how toxic those shows can be without belittling the people who choose to participate in them.
Overall, there are plenty of enjoyable elements in the story, making Charm Offensive a must-try for fans of The Bachelor or any other reality show for that matter. Despite this, it does not rise above a three-star rating for me. While I had some difficulty pinning down why this is, I concluded that it was due to the writing which was repetitive and unremarkable in general. The author tried her best to provide individual perspectives of the protagonists, but that effort was completely drowned out by bringing in a third-person omniscient narrator to speak on behalf of Dev and Charlie. This basically destroys the purpose of dedicating an entire segment to each of them to speak their point of view, as the entire novel now sounds like it has been written from a third-person perspective.
Despite her flaws, it’s a pleasure to accompany Miss Cochrun from her inception. All in all, Alice Cochrun’s debut novel, “The Charm Offensive” was indeed quite charming.