At 112 pages, Playing House is more novella than novel. The story ends at the 87% mark to accomodate a generous sample of the next book in this series, and I feel like I should be really disappointed. But here's the thing: whenever I try to imagine a way to expand or improve the book, I can't do it. Like Baby Bear's furniture and chow, everything about this story is "just right."
I enjoyed Lang's earlier work and was so delighted to pre-order Playing House. Usually when a pre-order pops up on my virtual TBR pile, I let it simmer awhile as I finish up whatever I'm in the middle of. However, in this case, I was in the midst of being let down by a new-to-me author I'd thought promising, and Playing House turned out to be the perfect palette cleanser.
First of all, this story is wicked well-written. The prose is spare but evocative, perfectly suited to the mini-tours of Harlem real estate that punctuate the growing attraction between city planners, Fay Liu and Oliver Huang. I don't actually look for grammatical and editing issues when I read, but it seems like they are so common that the absence of such errors demands to be noted and celebrated. Furthermore, the story is perfectly paced and constructed tightly enough to keep out all manner of stormy weather.
I also really loved the competence pR0n. I'm a little burnt out by event planners, building contractors, and every possible permutation of rich dude. It was refreshing to spend time with young professionals in an unfamiliar (to me) discipline that both of them loved. I enjoyed the way Oliver and Fay interacted against a background of location and architectural details that left me feeling that I'd learned something new and very interesting.
One of the best things about this story was the pervasive sense of balance integrated into the plot. The characters of Fay and Oliver are restrained and responsible even as they deal with personal issues. Fay is recovering from divorce and Oliver, from the loss of a job and from familial expectations. In fact, dealing with outside expectations is an issue for both characters and makes them that much more empathetic. The fact that Oliver has applied for a position with Fay's firm is a further potential complication between them. Peripheral characters are vital and believable even when their time on the page is limited. Oliver's mother and brother as well as Fay's long distance bestie are particularly important to the story and help illuminate the personalities of the central couple.
At the other end of the spectrum is Oliver and Fay's growing attraction, made more appealing and believable by its straightforwardness. When they succumb to that attraction, the results are both awkward and tender as well as passionate. All of these elements are interwoven in a way that enhances the restrained intensity between the two protagonists. To be more blunt, this romance is not a closed door story nor is it powered by instalust or dirty talk. As I said, it's just right, but mileage, as they say, is bound to vary. I couldn't help but root for these characters wholeheartedly, and when they find a way to resolve their conflicts, the result is immensely satisfying. However, the ending is more HFN than HEA, though it's not hard to imagine that HEA in the future.
I'm giving Playing House a solid four stars. Ironically, I might have gone with five but, ultimately, I wanted more of Fay and Oliver and more for them as well.