Kate is a twenty-something lesbian in Vancouver, still recovering from her last break up (which happened a year ago), and hopelessly crushing on her barista. The title is her friend Cass’s number one rule of coffee shop dating, but Kate thinks it might be worth breaking. Don’t Bang the Barista! follows Kate as she tries to figure out who she really has feelings for, and whether she’s truly over her ex.
I expected this book to be a bit of a guilty pleasure fun read. The back cover blurb begins with “Drawing on the classics of lesbian pulp fiction,” and I can definitely see the influence here. (Quick aside: don’t read any further in the blurb, because it gives away everything that happens in the first half of the book.) But for the most part, the tone is different than I’d expect. Kate is introspective and often seems to verge on being depressed. She is still dealing with a lot of issues from her last relationship and finds reaching out difficult. I also appreciated the detail given to secondary characters in the story. Kate’s group of friends all have their own distinct personalities and priorities, and they are all dealing with issues that are only tangentially related to her. They feel like real people in their own right, not just props in her narrative. There are a lot of details included that elevate Don’t Bang the Barista! from a modern lesbian pulp, making it seem realistic–like the ongoing inclusion of Kate’s dog Jupiter, and references to Kate’s work life, and even discussion of biphobia in the lesbian community. On a personal level, I also really enjoyed reading a book set so close to where I live. The west coast queer politics alluded to felt very familiar to me, and it was fun to recognize some landmarks while I was reading.
But this level of detail and nuance also raised my expectations for the novel. Sometimes the tone seemed to change, and what felt realistic would suddenly verge into the soap operatic. I could forgive that because it meant to be inspired by pulp, but it did feel inconsistent. Most of all, though, I was disappointed with the main romance of the novel. I could understand the attraction, but the love interest behaved pretty terribly throughout the book and by the end that seems to be forgotten in a way that genuinely confused me. Kate was initially angry, and then seemed to change her mind and blame herself. Because this is a romance at heart, this aspect really affected my enjoyment of the novel. The characters and detail were really enjoyable, but the romance I just couldn’t get on board with.
To be specific, I don’t understand why Kate (and everyone else, the end) blamed herself for Cass’s behaviour. Yes, I get that Cass is not used to serious relationships, and it’s not that her behaviour isn’t understandable, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. First she forcibly kisses Kate while she’s on a date with another woman (and might I add that Cass has never told Kate that she was interested before this point), then she has the gall to laugh it off when Kate confronts her on it? She acted like a complete asshole. And then Kate is the one who reaches out to her when she goes AWOL, and only then gives a half-assed apology. Then they go camping and Cass storms off in a huff because she heard that Kate talked to a hot girl. Then she holds hands with Kate, says it’s the happiest moment of her life, notices that she’s still wearing her ex’s ring, and then storms off again and goes and tracks down previously mentioned hot woman and sleeps with her, ignoring Kate the whole time, still not actually voicing that she likes her. Oh, and abandoning Kate with people she doesn’t even know. So after Kate finds her own way back, she runs into Cass while going out with her ex, and Cass’s first words to her are “Dude. What the fuck,” still with no apology for ditching her, and then gets pissed at Kate for getting back with ex and storms off again. (Side note, I also couldn’t believe that Kate didn’t get that Cass liked her at this point. She said holding hands with you was the happiest moment of her life and you don’t get the hint? She’s been acting like a jealous asshole 24/7?) At this point, Kate is like “Even if she likes me, this relationship could never work, since she can’t communicate at all” (paraphrase), which is completely accurate. Then Cass sees Kate and her ex at a coffee shop together and again storms off in a huff without saying anything. Kate still tries to seek Cass out, unsuccessfully, and then Kate emails her another half-assed apology and says “BTW I’m moving to Amsterdam BYE” (paraphrase). This is the point where Kate starts blaming herself, saying she pushed Cass away, and how could she do that when she now realizes that this is who she loves?? She waited too long! Kate again tries to seek out Cass, but she’s already moved out of her apartment. So she stakes out the airport to try to convince Cass to stay, but Cass brushes her off and won’t let her finish a sentence. Kate thinks “I could see how much I’d hurt her and I hated myself for it.” Because you got together with your ex when Cass had a) never voiced her feelings for you and b) just slept with another woman and ditched you to do so? You’re supposed to feel guilty about that? It might not have been a good decision, but it’s not because it hurt Cass’s feelings. If she wanted to get together with you, she should have stopped being an asshole and also asked you out. And then Kate’s friends tell her she should have told Cass how she felt earlier and Kate just wallows in guilt, apparently having completely forgotten that Cass has consistently been pretty much nothing but jerkish this entire book.
Sorry for the description of basically the entire plot between Cass and Kate, but I had to go back and make sure I wasn’t remembering things wrong. Where was I supposed to root for Cass? Why is Kate supposed to feel guilty? Why is it that them getting together is supposed to be the happy ending? And, might I add, they only get together because YET AGAIN Kate seeks Cass out on another continent this time. Like I said, I liked most of this book, but the romance is so baffling to me that I ended up rating it 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Not a Cass fan, and I don’t understand how I’m expected to be, given how she acts the entire novel.