Overall Grade: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Tropes: enemies-to-lovers; hate-to-love; opposites attract; workplace romance; found family;
hero with a heart of gold, but a cold exterior; tenacious heroine; slow burn
“Most people aren’t damaged by dreams they never achieve. It’s having those dreams ripped away that break us.”
Aly Stiles returns to the world of corporate espionage in her newest offering to the SmartyPants Romance world, Play Smart. Situated in the Educated Romance Work for It Series, her first book of the series, Street Smart, placed us squarely in Reedweather Media, the media counterpart to Brighthouse and Sandeke Telecom, contemporaries of Penny Reid’s Hypothesis series. Like her first book, Stiles treats us to inept leaders of entitled companies and subordinates whose genius is foiling the destructive plans of privileged CEOs.
In Play Smart, there is much to love.
- The Keystone Cops/Three Stooges-esque humor of Street Smart returns and finds a place in Play Smart. In an interesting turn, the smartest people in Stiles’s book are her women. There are also intelligent men who aid them, but the true impetus for change lies at the feet of her heroines, shining the light of female empowerment in corporate America.
- Her hero, Nash, is drawn with many layers. Outwardly, he’s abrupt and guarded, hiding behind his street smarts. He’s a perfect foil to Stiles’s heroine, the buttoned-up, rule-following, Paige. Their chemistry develops through the attraction of their opposites rendering, and it begins as hate-to-love or adversaries-to-lovers, one of my favorite tropes. However, this leads us to the message of Stiles’s Play Smart.
- There is more to Nash’s rendering. A foster kid, he has endured serious trauma in his life, culminating in a separation from his love, music. Paige and Nash judge each other based on their initial perception of the other. Once they realize there is greater depth to their character, their attraction grows. Yet, Nash must move beyond the trauma of his past. He must accept that he doesn’t traverse the world alone, but he has a “found family” who will support him whether he is at his best or his worst. This lesson takes most of the book to learn, and Nash’s portrayal is the emotional tether of Stiles’s Play Smart.
- Similar to Nash, we find there is more to Paige’s characterization. Through her character development, Stiles underscores the message about not being “fine”. Paige is incredibly competent, and she’s accepted her parents’ expectations of her. In contrast to her brother, who has chosen a different path and been ostracized because of it, Paige has played peacemaker and followed their path for her even if it isn’t her dream. Through her journey, we are reminded that we aren’t all fine, and that we can make choices for ourselves so that we can be happy. Stiles seeks to encourage her reader to avoid “be[ing] something else […] they wanted…” Instead, we should choose to be who we are meant to be.
Aly Stiles’s Play Smart isn’t a decidedly $exy book. It’s a slow-burn story meant to challenge the idea of first impressions and internal struggles. It’s insightful, funny, and emotional as it asks us to choose ourselves and believe we’ll have people to catch us when we fall. It’s another great addition to the SmartyPants Romance universe.
In love and romance,