In the battle of TikTok’s favourite slow burn authors, Elena Armas is quickly becoming one of the frontrunners. After The Spanish Love Deception’s enemies to lovers storyline proved itself a firm favourite upon its release in 2021, last year’s follow-up The American Roommate Experiment was joyful, hot and swoony enough that it seemed like Armas had cracked the formula for what makes a great romance novel in a highly competitive BookTok world. Now, in The Long Game, Armas has expanded her romance repertoire once again with a small-town, grumpy x grumpy, slow burn romance that ticks all the boxes on paper. In practice, however, this novel ends up lacking a bit of the spark that made both of its predecessors so memorable.
After years of working for her father’s soccer club in Miami, Adalyn Reyes is determined to stand on her own two feet and make a name for herself – but accidentally starring in an embarrassing clip that quickly went viral wasn’t exactly what Adalyn had in mind. In a bid to prove herself, Adalyn goes along with her father’s directions to keep her distance from the club until the attention dies down, agreeing to travel to the small town of Green Oak, North Carolina. When she arrives in the remote location, however, Adalyn quickly realises that this isn’t the work trip she thought it would be and, even worse, that she’s not the only new arrival hiding out in Green Oak either.
A terrible first encounter with her new neighbour – the handsome, reclusive, former star goalkeeper Cameron Caldoni – is all it takes to set Adalyn and Cameron’s relationship off on the wrong foot, but when Adalyn realises that she’ll need to work closely with the reluctant new coach of the U10s girls’ soccer club to turn their games around and prove what she’s capable of, all bets are off. Adalyn is sure that Cameron is just a surly, scowling brute, while Cameron is convinced that Adalyn is a rich daddy’s girl who’s never had to work hard for anything before. Working together may lead to them clashing more often than not, but it could also be just the thing that convinces both Adalyn and Cameron to let their guards down, let someone else in, and remember that having another person on your team can be a wonderful thing.
I resisted it – him – because I liked being in Cameron’s arms too much. Enough to remind myself that Green Oak was a bubble, and there was a life waiting for me back in Miami. One that I had fought hard to go back to but was starting to feel I didn’t belong to anymore.”
The Long Game is a novel that feels like it’s made up of two separate storylines that never really seem to gel; there’s the fish-out-of-water plot of the big city career woman seeking to prove herself in a small town, and there’s the romance between two guarded individuals in overlapping worlds who both struggle with letting people get too close. These are both plots that could happily work together if the narrative was given the time to breathe, but instead readers are given a lot of awkwardly contrived scenes that feel forced and unnecessary, unexpected plot jumps and just a few too many scenes where an emotional build-up is cut short before we’re given the chance to enjoy the payoff.
It makes for a jarring read overall, but especially so when it comes to the shifting emotions of the lead characters and the novel fails to show the genuine connection and developing attraction in real time, instead jumping ahead and telling the reader that something’s changed. This isn’t helped by the fact that the novel insists on continuing the enemies half of Adalyn and Cameron’s ‘enemies to lovers’ plot for far longer than makes narrative sense, which makes the development of their relationship feel too abrupt when that switch to lovers does happen. It’s particularly frustrating as, once Adalyn and Cameron really begin interacting, there’s enough conflict on both sides for the pair to work through that would keep the tension alive for longer and in more natural ways too.
Still, when Cameron and Adalyn are given that space to explore their attraction for one another, The Long Game offers up a solid reminder of why Armas’ previous book couples have captured so many readers’ hearts. For all their differences, Adalyn and Cameron really do make the perfect team, and seeing Adalyn begin to open up and feel comfortable admitting that she needs help and accepting it when it comes is a beautiful thing. Cameron may not receive as much of the narrative to explore his own journey, but Armas does a great job of establishing his own fears and insecurities in a more limited page space, which makes it all the more heartening when Adalyn is able to pinpoint what it is that Cameron needs and offer it to him freely, constantly and without hesitation.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel – with Adalyn and Cameron’s relationship, the adorable girls who make up the soccer team and Adalyn’s friend Matthew putting in scene-stealing appearances whenever he pops up being just a few of the highlights. But The Long Game’s commitment to a slow burn enemies-to-lovers storyline in this instance also ultimately ends up letting it down in the long run.
This is a story that spends too much time building things up and keeping things back from the reader, without giving it enough time to let everything play out in satisfying ways too. It’s a struggle to really settle into this novel, its world and the relationships at its heart. Stick with it, however, and The Long Game does reward you with a sweet and steamy romance, a protective male hero who loves to offer support, safety and comfort, and a heartwarming happy-ever-after for a main character that deserves every bit of the happiness she finds.
The Long Game is published by Simon & Schuster on 5 September 2023