[REVIEW] “Better At Weddings Than You”: A New Take on the Classic Pinoy Happily-Ever-After

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Full book cover of “Better At Weddings Than You”

When Mina V. Esguerra, the romance author of my teens, announced on Twitter that she was doing a blog tour of her new book, I knew I had to participate. But other than being an obvious fan of hers, something about her latest novel caught my attention – it was about weddings.

Daphne Cardenas is the best wedding planner around, and everyone knows it. That’s why her friend Greg hired her as an emergency replacement one month before his wedding—because he fears his fiancée Helen is falling for the guy they first hired for the job.

Aaron Trinidad is new to the wedding industry but years of conference planning and loads of charm make him good at it. Really good at it. Planning the wedding of his friend Helen should be easy, and it is. To be unceremoniously fired isn’t good for his new career, but the chance to learn from the best might be the silver lining.

Aaron and Daphne have chemistry, but there’s history with Helen that at least one other person considers a threat. Who’s the planner who can fix this impending disaster?

(Part of the Chic Manila series, but can be read as a standalone.)

I’m the kind of romantic that could obsess over wedding details and all the over-the-top lovey-dovey moments, even if it wasn’t my own. (A/N: I honestly love weddings so much.) I’ve also had a bit of experience organizing corporate events so I felt like I would empathize with Daphne (the main character) at least with how she does her work.

With that in mind, I signed up to get a copy and dived in the world of weddings, scrapbooks, and finding love in a job that involved a ton of tension and drama.

Expectations and First Impressions

Honestly, I was expecting this book to have the sweet familiar charm that weddings bring to a love story. I guess, with the many local and foreign teleseryes and movies that use weddings to resolve everything, it became normal to expect so much joy and pure goodness to come out of that one event. I thought that this book will use the concept of weddings like that too, but just accentuating a different angle of the drama (because weddings are great for those too).

But, a few pages in, I’ve already encountered such strong characters and immense (unspoken) tension. It didn’t feel like the usual wedding planning setup; it wasn’t overly sweet and cutesy to the point that you could already picture people walking down the aisle, but it wasn’t too serious,  dramatic and over-the-top either.

The tone of the first chapter set a mature urban mood that nudged me and said, “Hey, this isn’t your usual wedding chick lit. Hold on tight.”

Characters

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I don’t know if this is just me not reading as much as I did before, but I’ve never encountered a Daphne before. She isn’t the type of girl that needed to develop before she could truly fall in love. Yes, she still did need some learning to do about life and stuff (which she does throughout the story) but that didn’t mean she needed love to be able to tell her who she was. She could look in the mirror and recognize herself. She was a person, whole and self-assured, and she knows what she wants.

But, at the same time, she didn’t fit the archetype of a woman who was strong but reckless and violent, nor was she made to be intimidating just to fall putty into the hands of a man when she falls in love. She commands respect, not just because she’s beautiful, but because she’s good at what she does and she’s headstrong about her decisions.

It’s refreshing really, to be able to read her story and thoughts, because to do so can really be empowering to an extent.

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Aaron, on the other hand, took a while longer to figure out and like. He’s handsome, and I won’t deny it, very swoon worthy even from the start. He’s an industry newbie and is the kind of guy who’d be oblivious to his best friend liking him for years. But, his character felt familiar and new at the same time and it was hard to put a finger on how I really thought of him. (Mainly, I was trying to figure out why would I like him other than his dashing good looks.)

As the story progressed, Aaron felt like a classic boy-next-door who was always there when you needed him. Of course, that guaranteed pogi points already because 1) he knew exactly when to swoop in and 2) it was obvious that he, like Daphne, was also good and knew what he was doing.

But, he proved to be more than just that as a character, as he exposed his sentimentality in how he handled his work and in how he interacted with people in general. I felt like he was the kind of guy that understood and emphatized with people.

Also, and I think this is one of his best characteristics, he had an element of being “lost” in him, showing that he’s grown up but he still has a lot to learn and work hard in doing. It was a great balance to Daphne’s straightforwardness.

Setting

Oh Manila. You were perfect for this kind of story. There’s no place better to embody the drama and hectic-ness of wedding planning and falling in love in the most unlikely of situations than you. And because the author wrote you and the city life really well, everything fit in really well.

Plot

As I mentioned earlier, the story started off with a lot of tension already, especially with the interaction of the two main leads. But, as it went on, the story and the leads themselves became more relaxed and honest. (The story showed how freeing it can be to not give a shit.) And because of that honesty, their banters and interactions became more playful and enjoyable to read.

Even during the first chapter, things were already pretty steamy so I was really curious as to how sex was going to be used as a plot device for the book. To me, I think it was utilized greatly to show a shift in character among the leads. It was what allowed them to be raw and vulnerable which helped them to understand more of each other’s personality and us to get a sense of who they are without the bravado they’re all trying to portray.

The overall story flow for me was paced just right, allowing me to discover the characters and understand their decisions. The ending did feel a bit hurried though, but when I thought about it, it must be me wanting for more scenes of the leads being together.

(There were also empowering scenes for women that I really loved, mostly of Daphne sharing her philosophy on taking care of herself and dating. Kudos to Ms. Mina for this!)

Overall

As the title of this review suggest, I did experience a different take on weddings because of this story. It didn’t focus on the couple getting married and what the wedding would mean to them. It wasn’t the usual wedding story that I’ve grown up knowing either. Instead, the story showed how wedding planning is as an industry and what it takes to be a wedding planner.

And in the end, for me, the story was a reminder that when you allow yourself to get away from the hectic and the commotion, and just become honest with yourself, you can find a love that’s worth it. (And even when you can’t, all you need is one thoughtless moment, to be honest about what you really want and who you really want to love and fight for.)

Where do you get this book?

You can buy “Better At Weddings Than You” by Mina V. Esguerra on Amazon: bit.ly/chicmanila9 ($1.99 pre-order price until April 30, $2.99 starting May 1). Free on Kindle Unlimited.

About the cover: designed by Tania Arpa, photography by Alexandra Urrea. The photo comes from one of the shoots we did for #romanceclasscovers, our project to provide romance-cover photos with Filipino models. (More about that project here: instagram.com/romanceclasscovers)

Unnamed Chinese movie: wake up call indeed

Head heavy and worried about running late, I rushed to the seat behind the driver’s when I boarded the available Cubao via EDSA bus this morning. It was a strategic place to sit because my bag was big (and an inconvenience for travelling in crowded places), and I didn’t need to punish myself by having to carry it from the other end of the bus to the door.

Even when I was finally settled in my seat, I was barely ready for anything. I was still part-zombie because it was early. I was also part-anxious because I knew heavy traffic would welcome my new year and I might not earn extra hours I needed so that I could go home early. And, I was a total wreck because I fell sick the night before and I’ve had little rest to recover.

But, apparently, I don’t even have the luxury to decide if I want to be ready for Manila or if I could still go to sleep.

When I looked up at the glaring screen before me, I saw Chinese movie characters shooting each other, blood flying everywhere, during a police raid. (At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was a raid because only the sound and red registered. I only confirmed my guess during the main antagonist’s flashback sequence.)

I’m not a particularly squeamish person but people firing guns at each other was more than I bargained for. The booming alone was enough to kick start my day. But, I was getting a free movie (though I didn’t like the action genre very much) and like a good resilient person, I just kept watching.

So the film’s about this Chinese police man who disobeyed orders during the raid who ultimately saved the life of a hostage by doing so. Because of that, the police council had to decide if they should fire him or promote him.

Enter commanding captain that initially seemed like an irrelevant part of the council. She interrogates him a bit in his temporary holding cell and you know it’s gotten hot because the protagonist just finished exercising and is still sweating so much. In the end, she invited him to join some secret Wolf**** army for China which, according to the movie, is the army that can do whatever is needed and is the one that receives the best of the best weapons available.

Protagonist (let’s call him Leng) agrees.

Leng meets the Wolf people and they undergo an exercise. This exercise is like paint ball wars except the terrain is pretty war-like legit and there are tanks and fake-ish explosions and a commanding general for the blue and red teams.

While that’s going on, Mr. Head of the place they raided is shown to have escaped and arrest by the police with the help of the American mercenaries he hired.

Segway re: movie plot – I am so sorry to whoever created this film but I don’t know the title so I can’t just link a synopsis here. And I have to reveal plot points because it’s vital to my later reflection. So sorry.

So Mr. HPTR then has the flashback of his little (not-so little anymore) brother calling him about their drug factory of some sort saying that he finally has use for him now and in that video call, Mr. HPTR sees the raid happen. Apparently, brother is the hostage taker that Leng shot. (Leng is a sniper, BTW).

It becomes a revenge story. Mr. HPTR tasked the mercenaries to go after Leng, even if it means crashing in on the most high tech Chinese army exercise.

Okay, so this is where the feels come in.

I wasn’t particularly engrossed in the movie at first because 1) I’m not a big fan of action films and 2) I haven’t watched a lot of Chinese movies to know if I really like their film style or not. But, there’s this one minor character that I found absolutely adorable.

Call me out of my mind but one of the Wolf army guy to me seemed like the perfect teddy bear. He wasn’t a softie and he wasn’t, any way, looking huggable (except for his cheeks). He was a pretty tough dude. He’s Leng’s commanding officer in fact. But I don’t know! He looked like one professor I met and that doesn’t make sense. I guess, through the actor’s portrayal, I saw that this guy has a good heart.

Then, boom!

Dear Movie, I was just starting to like you and you kill off the one guy character I found adorbs right after you show us the picture of his kid hidden in his helmet. I mean, come on! No one was supposed to die during an exercise! It was a drill! How could you?

So yes, the adorbs dude died because the mercenaries came for Leng and during an attempt to kill Leng, he died instead.

I wasn’t done grieving yet when the bad guys decided to go on an all out attack just to kill Leng. There are just six of them but they are confident enough that the top secret highly-weaponized army of China is no match for them. (Yes, the film portrays racism).

Side note re: racism – This movie is subtly kicking racism. The guys with the upper hand on attacking and stuff are the mercenaries a.k.a. the Americans. And, all throughout the film, some character is degrading the capabilities of the Chinese and their weapons.

Anyway, I didn’t want to have to continue watching. But I was right up front and it was right there. I just didn’t want to like more characters and watch them die. (I know I’m sounding whiny but fangirls out there know my struggles.)

I kept watching. I was slowly getting over the death because so many people kept dying. Leng triumphed in the end though and by the time that was happening, my mind was caught up on something else.

See, there’s this scene that Leng battles the head American guy and he wins. Just when he feels victorious and sees other Chinese army nurses sending rescue stuff, one of the medical man pretends to nurse him but then actually tries to kill him. And cue all the racist callouts in the movie. Wow, Leng just fought for his country and so many others died for that cause, but it’s their own countrymen betraying them.

Things got deep pretty fast.

In the end, it’s not just a matter of racism or patriotism. It’s about the great evil that money ushers in – greed and power. And I’m in no position to preach here and I have no intention of doing so, but that morning, I just felt so many things and in my head I was going all “This is also happening here.”

Movie-wise, the plot was very generic and usual but it punches at clichés in a way that get’s the audience without being irritating. The racism and feminist attempts here weren’t too loud either (which allowed it to be a symbolic subtext kind of thing). I’m guessing the director wanted to get an audience (thus the clichés) but also wanted to pitch a cause to the general masses.

Did it work?

Well, I was awake the whole two-hour trip and I still kept thinking of Leng and adorbs dude and other possible subtexts hidden in the movie halfway through the second movie that aired.