[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)

In Between States

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Photo source: ours80s.com

In school, we were taught that there are three states of matter – solid, liquid and gas. The most prominent characteristic that differentiates each state is the compactness of their molecules, solid being the most compact.

(If you’re going to be really particular, yes, there’s another state of matter – plasma – but for the purposes of this post, let’s just stick to the first three for the metaphors.)

We were also taught that a material can change from one state to another. The most classic example is ice (solid) that turns to water (liquid) and then water vapor (gas).

I was reminiscing these lessons as I waited for a jeepney at a police outpost near my alma mater. At the time, I had just finished requesting for some documents I needed for something I was planning to do in the near future. Something that would dictate my life for the next few years.

You could say that I was worried. That day was a day of setting things in motion. I was actively trying to get a move on with my life and disrupt the routine I had learned to live with for almost eight months. Everything beneath my feet was shaking with the idea that from there on out, anything was possible and I was in-charge.

As cars continued to pass me by, I found myself dwelling on the changes that happened to me in a span of a year and how I got to where I am. More often than not, each change brought some sort of discomfort that I had to overcome. And at the time, when I was slowly being overcome by changes and worries, I needed to have a metaphor to anchor my sanity to.

I was in a state of confusion. I only had a general idea of where I wanted my life to go, but who was I kidding? I felt like I had no direction and that I was just making up plans for the sake of having plans. The best way I could describe it was being in between states, like being whatever it is that’s no longer water but not yet vapor.

Solid to Liquid

I graduated college feeling like life finally proved me wrong about not being good enough.

You see, though I excelled in school during elementary and high school, I never really believed like I could do great things. I was surrounded by people who were better than me and I always felt like I had to catch up or else I’ll fall off the roster.

But in college, I ended up fulfilling a wish of mine, which was to deliver the valedictory speech at the end of four years. Though my aim was only to inspire my batch mates with a speech (just like how our HS valedictorian inspired me), I found that after the four years in college, I became a solid person that can be proud of herself and can dream of better things.

I wasn’t complete as a person yet, but I felt concrete. I felt like I existed and I knew who I was.

But, when I was thrown into the corporate world, I found myself blending in to try to adopt. I wanted to do my best, and being blinded by the need to adjust, I mindlessly gave too much of myself.

Here’s a hard truth: I was too obsessed about finding a job and doing what was expected of me that I forgot how to define my life, that I lost parts of myself I didn’t need to lose.

For a short while, I was proud of myself for being able to survive in Manila all by myself, for accomplishing tasks I thought were impossible, for putting myself out there and for enduring challenges alone.

But I lived in the now. I just wore myself down as I tried to get by. Because I allowed the system to swallow me, I wasn’t accomplishing anything meaningful.

Liquid to Gas

Just because I realized that something was going wrong doesn’t mean that I was able to do something about it immediately. I was stuck in a situation and the next steps were vague, if not invisible.

I endured. That meant I was aware of how toxic my routine had become but I was unable to take action. Everything proceeded as it did before but I got unhappier as the days passed.

Those were dark days. What got me through was the thought of going home to Lipa. I counted the hours and I had to actively find motivation to do anything.

It was like being in Limbo while yearning for what it would feel like to be in a better place.

Slowly, I was feeling stagnant and, I don’t know, I was just really down.

Gas to Solid

In the state of being lost, I found a flicker of hope. It started out as a crazy idea at first but at least it was something. I used that fantasy to build myself up, to be busy about something for myself. It wasn’t much, but it was a plan that made me smile.

It was only in desperation that I accepted that idea, to be honest. But it gave me myself back and even if it doesn’t go through, I’ll feel really thankful for it. (It was also thanks to thing thing that I was able to confirm what I feel like is my mission in life.)

It wasn’t easy to force my life to change, to take charge of my life. From being confused about who I’ve become to trying to become someone better, I had to silence my worries and trust my gut about most things. I had to exhaust all options and keep an open mind to where certain opportunities would lead.

It took everything in me to become someone I recognized once again.

I’m currently at this state now. I’m still trying to be a solid person again. I’ve made choices. I’ve committed to purposeful things. I’m moving forward.

As the days pass, I’m getting closer and closer to the person I want to be. I’m regaining confidence in myself. (The funny thing is, things aren’t going according to plan but they’re becoming better.)

Nothing’s set in stone yet but for the first time in a long while, I’m feeling excited about something meaningful again.

(Hello Pollen. It’s been a while.)

A Happy Poem

Mt. Manabu peak

​I’d like to write about happy things

again. Sometimes, I look at the sky

and come up with words like ‘soggy,

brow-beaten cheeks’ instead of 

‘tomorrow’. My best work is defaulted

that way – to be of uneaten

breakfast and bottled coffee left

under the bed. Sunlight, if ever

it comes, barges in between cracks

on the roof while I wish to stay

asleep, and my pen reaches for it,

merely to immortalize the pain

of waking up. My handwriting sounds

like birds, drilling the concrete, because

it tells the story of a little girl 

crying. There is no air to breathe 

in my poems, should I write 

one. If there were better things,

happier things, maybe I could.

‘Unlearn’

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Photo credits: “Lost in Thought” Art Print by Davies on Society6

My favorite English word is ‘unlearn’. To me, it’s impossible to unlearn anything and yet, that word exists. It’s a sweet simple paradox.

This morning, ‘unlearning’ came to mind as I stared at a press release written for one of our projects. It was being edited and I was called so that I could learn from the revisions.

I thought back to my college days, when I was writing for the school paper, and began comparing notes. I knew that the context of the situations were different but, at times, I couldn’t help but internally reject some of the practices/tips given to us because it was different from what I learned. Most of the time, I have to turn off the pub-side of my brain to be able to write press releases according to how the industry wants it to be written.

It’s been almost eight months of that now. Of course, I haven’t been writing press releases only. I’ve been writing various communication materials also, and because of that, I had to adopt the business/marketing language – whatever that is.

This morning, I was just worried that unlearning is actually possible. I worried that by trying to adopt to a certain communication style, I had unlearned one that I am proud of having acquired. If that was the case, then the special-ness of my favorite word would be gone and I’d have to blame myself for being so careless with words and communication.

But then, as I spaced out and thought about it some more, I realized that I did not unlearn. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to write a good news article, using the rules I came to know, if I tried. It won’t be phenomenal, but I will be familiar and okay.

Maybe, just because I haven’t been doing it as much, I have temporarily forgotten. I may have put that skill to sleep in the comforts of my head, but it’s there. And everyone knows, you can’t run after waking up. It takes slow and sluggish steps to get accustomed to being alive again.

Writing is who I am, and like the things we learn and come to realize, our identity is not something that can simply be taken away.

My First Book Fair (37th Manila International Book Fair)

My body was sore when I woke up in the morning, and I’ll admit, it was pretty tempting to sleep in for a while longer despite the temptation of books that await me at the SMX Convention Center. Thankfully, I wasn’t that tired and insane to bail out on my friend, Gianne and so I rushed to meet her at McDo Buendia after a very slow morning prep session.

The mood had been different the day before. It was on Friday when I was filled with a primal craving for the printed word. I just couldn’t stop myself from smiling during random times of the day at the thought of being surrounded by books. I wanted to swim in them. (I just really, really, love books.)

The feeling was slow to creep back in that Saturday and it only really became real when we were on a multicab ride to MOA. Suddenly, my pulse sounded louder and I felt my true self surfacing. I was a writer, going to a book fair with tons and tons of books and awesome writers. This was home base.

When Gianne and I entered SMX, we kind of fumbled about for a bit. We went in at one entrance then we got out then in another before finally lining up for registration. To be fair, there were tons of people and we were too excited.

When we got in, I didn’t have a chance to have my first thought or reaction. It wasn’t a sea of books or a big library, and I wasn’t expecting it to be like that since I already saw photos, and still I was a bit overwhelmed with how big the publishing industry was. There were so many booths to visit, granted that they weren’t all fiction or my type but they were still books and I love the physicality and smell of them.

Trying to go about this smartly, Gianne and I came up with a game plan. The original game plan was to actually introduce Milktea Fiction, a publishing thing that Gianne and I came up with (milkteafiction.wordpress.com) while being our bookworm-selves. But, since I failed to print out le cards, we just decided to enjoy the fair and buy books.

In the morning, we planned to go around, take note of the stuff we want and then eat lunch to rationalize our would-be decisions. Then, in the afternoon, we’d splurge. Easy enough.

The morning was, well, overwhelming. Half of my mind was floating, reeling at the experience, while the other half was just so energized and excited that my body couldn’t keep up. With a mix of both, I was like a caffeinated zombie that my body, at times, was hesitating to function (haha).

Like I said earlier, it wasn’t all a sea of fiction books (which was the kind of books that first comes to my mind at the mention of a book) but it was really interesting to get a feel of the publishing scene in the Philippines. We’re a mix of educational, religious, mainstream and indie publishing. Romance was there, self-help too and some were even very cultural and with a distinct feel of Filipino.

There were also all sorts of readers in the market, I realized and the whole book fair was just really a reflection of their (our) needs. The publishers there exist and thrive, no matter how different their books are, because there are people looking for their kind of content. (This is valueable market intel for me and Gianne since, you know, we’re aspiring to be published and taken seriously.)

One of the best parts was chatting up with people at the Indie Publishing booth. (I could be there all they, chummy-ing them up if only I wasn’t too potato.) Shoutout to Sir RR of Lira and Ms. Mina V. Esguerra of Romance Class. You guys showed me that stories can come from anywhere.

If anything, it made me feel like there’s a solid chance for my dream to be a legit writer. At least I know that this industry, though it’s not exactly as I hoped for, is alive and that people really do come from all sorts of places just to buy books and read.

Aside from that writer-ish epiphany, I also had an enlightening experience as a marketer. I work for Fiera de Manila, Inc. and we specialize in events. Since I already have a bit of a background on tradeshows and conventions, I also saw MIBF from an organizer’s perspective – the booths, the layout, the suppliers, the programs and everything. It was a nice feeling to be so familiar of things like that.

When afternoon came, Gianne and I were prepared to make bad decisions. (Read: We were totally screwed.) We both set ceiling spend amounts and listed the things we planned to buy.

Having reasons to spoil myself a.k.a. having September as my birth month, I allowed myself to go over-budget. (Read: I lost self-control.) I ended up with 10 books, though three of them were for free.

  1. How Sound Becomes A Name by Marc Gaba (Indie Publishing) – This was the first book I bought and it’s a collection of poems. I got it because I felt a connection to the title. It felt like this guy wrote through the senses just like me.
  2. LÁMANG edited by Edgar Calabia Samar (Indie Publishing) – I got this for free and I was like, aw. You could tell that they were not only for the sale but also for getting their content out there. That’s the heart of indie, folks.
  3. Aninaw edited by Ronaldo Carcamo (Indie Publishing) – Second free book! Are these people awesome or what? (They are people from LIRA and they write Filipino poems, which honestly, I’ve been hesitant to tackle before they gave me the idea.)
  4. Pag-aabang sa Kundiman: Isang Talambuhay by Edgar Calabia Samar (Indie Publishing) – The author was there when I bought this so I got it signed. Ugh, he seemed so cool and I wanted to ask for his card but I hesitated. I couldn’t tell him that I knew him because I didn’t… yet. Anyway, I’m looking forward to read his collection of Filipino poems (and to stalk him… este, know more about him online.)
  5. Rurok edited by Enrico Torralba (Indie Publishing) – It’s another Filipino poetry book for free!
  6. Paper Planes Back Home by Tara Frejas (Indie Publishing) – This one stood out from the Romance Class side of the booth. Other than being blue, I bought it because it didn’t feel like the usual contemporary books I used to buy. This one had a solid synopsis, almost poetic and I wanted to see how that fits into the whole publishing world. (Let’s see how I’ll fit in too.)
  7. The Looking-Glass Tree by Cycan Abad-Jugo (Anvil Publishing / National Bookstore) – Okay, shoutout to JC Galang because his illustration was the one that convinced me. It was so haunting and simple and the lines were beautiful. It felt so Filipino and mystical and I haven’t been promised that before. I’m really looking forward to this.
  8. The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo (Fully Booked) – Anything with a blue cover, the word ‘magic’ and a distinctness to it could win me over. Gianne also told me that the author wrote with a kind of innocence and I wanted to feel that. (In the first place, I wanted to write like that too.)
  9. M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman (Fully Booked) – It’s obvious why I bought this. Plus, Neil Gaiman is awesome. I thank Gianne for speaking so highly of him that I was persuaded to read his works.

Just a quick segway before I list down the last book. The Fully Booked journey had been a battle. Gianne and I had to line up for 15-20 minutes in a crowd of energized sweaty booklovers (I understand the passion) before we got to the cashier. We only got two books because we didn’t understand the concept of how the sale worked. (Read: We thought the full price was already the discounted price.)

  1. Moving Onwards and Upwards (Adarna) – The cover was, you guessed it, blue and it had pretty typography and art alongside the story. This was a feel good buy, despite it going over budget.

In the end, I spent a lot, exhausted my feet and shared the same air with more people that I could imagine. But, I’m happy with my haul (they were mostly blue) and I loved the alive-ness I felt inside MIBF. The memory was the best part and I’ll keep that forever. (Thanks, Gi.)

Here’s more shoutouts to Tahanan, Rex Bookstore, Summit Media and the Filipino-feeling booths got to visit at MIBF! Thank you also to the organizers for doing this every year. I’ll be back for the 38th.

(The lesson was this: keep the dream alive. You’ll get there.)

The significance of comfort things

 

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There’s a reason why it’s red.

 

When asked about dreams and

limits, she resorted to

the cage inside her head

and the

shackles that bound her

to the darkness she tried to reign.

 

It was in a milk tea shop.

 

To think she could be

anything, only if

she believed in fairies again

and tried to

fix the way the puzzles fit

like building

blocks in her muddled brain.

 

Pillows, in plural.

 

She finds that it is easier to

fool the self

to perform the impossible with

things you buy in a store

that you

develop an attachment to.

 

Give me spaghetti in September.

 

In truth, the mind dictates

the possible and

accepts what it is that can be,

and can be

learned, for faith is a matter

of acceptance.

 

There’s a reason why it’s blue too.

In which we attach meaning

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When you look at it this way, it’s easy to say that power is all in our head. After all, it is in our head that we give someone or something the power to mean everything.

Say for example, you find yourself walking home under unlit streetlights at an unholy hour. Your knuckles are turning white and your legs, jelly, and the only thing you feel is keeping you safe is holding your breath until you reach the gray gate you can hide behind. Of course, once someone jumps out to drag you and stuff you inside a rice sack, you’d have no choice. But in desperation, you cling onto beliefs, actions – that gush of air you aren’t willing to release – that you think would illogically save your life.

On a lighter note this time. Say, you were a baby and say, you were sad. There’s that one thing, be it a pillow, a blanket or a stuffed toy, that smelled like Mom, and it fought the monsters away. It made you braver, stronger and at one point of your life, it was impossible to let go. Until it’s gone, because, older now, it didn’t matter to you anymore.

There’s that piece of candy you’ve hidden away in one of your wallets and an old coin in one of your socks. Stuck between your favorite book is an old convenience store receipt and under your bed is a Grade 4 art project. At the bottom of your inbox is a message with a smiley at the end dated five years ago. You have a slightly worn-out shoe losing its pair and a woolly red shirt you aren’t ever going to throw. Unable to keep what they represent, you hold on to the physical; it’s all you are capable of.

In truth, we just want to get pieces of what we cannot have – our life, a smile, a moment and the beyond.

So comes the attachment. Other than naming, this is another that denotes value and finality. It means to distinguish that something ordinary is special without any special reason. Just because you said so. Doing so, also gives a false sense of permanence that the value stays and it does, as long as you’d like it to linger.

In the middle of the night, you look for a star and even if facts say it is different, you insist on the sameness and ask it to grant you a wish. We see what we see. And we love who we love.

Right now, I have a rosary bracelet around my left arm. It’s loose, barely breathing and I could almost hear it warn me to brace myself. Something is coming, I don’t know what, but the thought of my shield wearing down scares me. (I am excited to discover where finding a new one would lead me though).

The things that have power over us, those that mean the most, are valuable the way we are because we say so. To be attached is a choice and so is to escalate meaning.

It makes the world more complex in a way other than just a dumpsite of possessions. It explains why people are greedy and stubborn and materialistic. It keeps superstitions alive. It facilitates the transfer of emotions and the rest of the intangible. And, interestingly, it can even give value to what we can achieve as ourselves with a simple change in mindset.

(It’s a lovely thing, these brains of ours).

In these foreign parts

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Taal at twilight

There are noises in the background. It’s a blank slate. The floor tiles are woven by the shadows lingering in my dreams.
Sometimes, I hear crying. The sweat trickling down my spine does not understand what is going on. Stars swim in my eyes, and the vision of the doorway grows weary.
“The number you dialed is out of coverage area,” said the phone.
We are a mix of red and blue. I imagine me being time, forever stretched but never as elastic. If you paid enough attention, you would have heard the buzzing. Glass only allows one to see through.
It is the end. My neck has twisted itself in an assortment of directions. The sky is no longer blue; instead, a variety of oranges and purples. The table I now sit on fits only one, and I am shivering.
“Medium or large,” asked the cashier. “Regular.”
Plumbing is unheard of in these parts. The strange thing is clowns no longer smile too. Unsoiled boots could only do so much.