The Villain Edit Is a Romance for Reality TV Lovers

Books Reviews Laurie Devore
The Villain Edit Is a Romance for Reality TV Lovers

Though reality dating shows are essentially a dime a dozen on every major network and streaming service they’re not exactly full of romantic success stories. The vast majority of couples who find one another on shows like Love is Blind, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, or Love Island don’t work out, and a large part of their contestants are usually only there to boost their social media followings and burnish their personal brands. But that most folks competing for one another’s hearts and the viewers watching at home are aware of this fact is just one of the self-aware twists that make watching these sorts of shows so fun. 

Such is also the case with The Villain Edit, a darkly entertaining romance that embraces everything that’s great (and awful) about the reality television business. If you’re a fan of competitive dating shows or only just watched UnReal for a couple of seasons, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here in this journey of a woman who accidentally makes herself the woman everyone loves to hate on a Bachelor-style dating show. 

The story follows Jacqueline “Jac” Matthis, a thirtysomething romance author whose career has stalled after her high-profile publishing deal goes bust. Desperate to give her career a boost, Jac decides to go on the 1, the megapopular reality dating show that offers a chance at happily ever after each season. But she’s not there to find love—-she’s there to sell herself. If she can just last a few weeks into the competition, the increased exposure she (and her books!) will receive could turn everything around for her. She’s not going to take any of the relationships that might develop onscreen too seriously, of course, and she’s got a multi-step plan to manage her image and narrative journey on air. What could go wrong? 

A lot, as it turns out. The night before she’s to report to the show’s infamous villa, Jac has a one-night stand with a handsome stranger, a man she discovers the next day is actually a producer on the show. She’s drawn to Henry—and he’s really hot—but she can’t decide whether she can trust their attraction or if he’s just trying to manipulate her to get good TV. More surprisingly, it turns out that Jac actually likes Marcus, the attractive bachelor whose affections she and her fellow contestants are meant to be fighting for. And while she’s not exactly on the show to make friends, her catty commentary, brutal honesty, and refusal to pretend to be someone she isn’t has made her rather unpopular amongst the other residents of the house. PIcking up on this tension, the 1’s producers decide to cast Jac as the villain of the season, the contestant everyone loves to hate. And while she didn’t exactly sign up for this….isn’t all publicity good publicity? Even if it’s not exactly the kind she wanted? 

Interestingly enough, though The Villain Edit itself is marketed as a romance and centers around a love triangle—that’s surprisingly compelling as such things go—the various love stories all take a back seat to soapy Bachelorette-style drama. Most of the book’s narrative engine is fueled by Jac’s attempts to manage both her image and the show’s producers, interspersed with snippets that show us how the outside world is reacting to her onscreen arc. Creatively recreated as news articles, blog posts, and podcast transcripts, it’s a delightfully wicked look at the manipulative heart of these shows we all love, and the ways the reality of the experience behind the scenes can be shown in a very different light to the audience watching at home. 

Jac’s caustic commentary and cynical vibes make her a most unconventional marriage prospect, and while Marcus seems to be into that, if this book has a major flaw it’s that Devore doesn’t go far enough in terms of showing us what exactly he sees in our anti-heroine. He seems to like her more because the plot says he has to for plot reasons rather than anything to do with Jac’s actual personality. (And, as fun a central character as she is, she’s also a lot for the kind of guy who’s trying to find love on a dating show.) As a result, the story’s central love triangle isn’t as compelling as it could be and often comes across as strangely flat.

And while Jac is often a refreshing character—she’s the only the 1 contestant who doesn’t spend all her time telling Marcus what she thinks he wants to hear, and she’s familiar enough with the unspoken rules of reality television to offer incisive and biting commentary about why this industry she’s voluntarily decided to be part of is the way it is. But her demeanor towards everyone involved with the series often borders on unnecessarily rude. While the book does a great job of showing us why the other contestants in the villa might hate Jac—and why, in a lot of ways, she’s genuinely earned their dislike—but it also seems to think her “not like other girls” act is somehow enough to not just keep her in the competition, but have a real shot at Marcus’s heart. 

Where Devore excels, however, is in her characterization of Jac. She’s honest about her caustic, occasionally off-putting nature and her cynical attitude toward love. Her strident disbelief in things like love at first sight or happily ever after illustrates why she’s had such problems in her chosen industry. If the romance genre has a golden rule it’s that the HEA ending is mandatory, and a big reason Jac’s novels have failed is likely because she didn’t respect her readers enough to honor that contract. That she’s so clearly longing for someone to love her to distraction anyway, despite her insistence that she neither needs or wants that kind of relationship in her life, is part of what makes the character relatable. (After all, you does anyone really go on a show like this if some part of you doesn’t hope it magically actually works?) 

The Villain Edit isn’t perfect or particularly deep literature—which is actually, in this instance, a compliment. Like the shows its story is modeled after, it’s a slice of deliciously entertaining fun,  the sort of read that’s targeted like a laser at summer book clubs and bookstore tables hyping poolside must-reads for 2024. Sometimes, it’s okay to just read because it’s simply fun—and despite its flaws, Devore’s story certainly has a ton of that.

The Villain Edit is available now wherever books are sold. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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