From Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper to formative ‘00s favourite The Lizzie McGuire Movie, stories about identical strangers swapping places have been entertaining audiences for centuries. We’ve seen iterations of this story appear in several guises over the years – from two young girls wanting to experience how the other lives in Mary-Kate and Ashley’s It Takes Two to a return to its royal roots with Netflix’s The Princess Switch film series. Now Lily Chu has entered into this longstanding story-telling tradition with The Stand-In, giving it an all-new rom-com twist with an added touch of movie star glamour in a sweet and engaging story that offers a fun dose of escapism.
The story follows Gracie Reed, whose life is going just fine. She may not be able to cross off every item on her to-do list every day and her mum is receiving great care, even if she isn’t in the nursing home of their dreams, but Gracie is healthy, mostly happy and more or less holding everything together. After an overeager paparazzi mistakes her for a Chinese megastar, Gracie comes to the attention of Chinese cinema’s golden couple Wei Fangli and Sam Yao, and Fangli offers up an intriguing proposition: due to their uncanny resemblance, Fangli wants Gracie to be her stand-in and pretend to be her for a few glitzy events and premieres while Fangli takes a much-needed break without upsetting her management and fans.
After she loses her job, Gracie realises the money Fangli is offering could be just what she needs to keep her afloat and help her mother too. But first she needs to get through two months of playing the role of a movie star alongside official World’s Sexiest Man Sam Yao, who’s definitely not on board with this plan. But as she spends more time playing the role of Fangli and hanging out with Sam, Gracie finds it harder and harder to hold on to herself… and her heart.
I’ve been a half person, just doing the minimum to get by because I haven’t had the spirit to do more, not with Todd and my mom and my life. I don’t want that anymore. I told Fangli I’d do a job and I’m going to do it, but in my own way.”
With its very premise, The Stand-In is asking its readers to come into this story with a healthy suspension of disbelief, even more so than most typical contemporary rom-com set-ups. Give into the conceit, however, and The Stand-In reads more like a modern fairytale complete with a Prince Charming subplot – and it’s a story that offers up a lot of great moments too. It is entertaining to see Gracie trying to navigate this new world of adoring fans, movie premieres and constant fan surveillance and social media coverage, and it’s fun to see Gracie’s relationship with Sam develop into a cute romance too, but it also quickly becomes clear that The Stand-In is perfectly happy to simply follow some very predictable and expected plot beats without necessarily adding anything more.
From Gracie trying to perfect Fangli’s red carpet walk and getting her designer personal shopping experience, to Gracie and Sam’s animosity-turned-partnership-turned-romance, it feels like The Stand-In is largely just going through the motions of what a reader would expect to see from this set-up. For the most part, Gracie and Sam lack the kind of romantic spark we’d usually like to see from romance couples, and at the beginning of the novel Gracie herself rarely takes an active role in her story, instead just preferring to go along with whatever the situation calls for. There is a lot of telling rather than showing, and it all only serves to create a story that readers have likely seen and read before, like it’s following a check-list of tropes, experiences and feelings that need to be included before swiftly moving on.
It’s particularly frustrating because when The Stand-In does begin to explore other, more interesting topics and themes, Chu introduces a lot of really exciting ideas that could have added so much more to the story being told had the novel given them just a little more focus. At the beginning of the book, Gracie already struggles with the concept of her identity as a biracial woman in Toronto, and being asked to pretend to be a Chinese superstar only compounds the problem further. The further Gracie gets into her time as Fangli’s stand-in, the more she questions who she is and who she possibly could be if she pushed herself and stepped outside of her comfort zone, as well as grappling with the moral quandaries of lying about who she is to the many people who look up to Fangli when she’s acting as her stand-in.
In large part due to her upbringing, Gracie initially struggles to believe in herself and take up space in the world, and she has to undergo a huge mind shift when she steps into Fangli’s shoes, but it’s this push that helps her begin to finally take stock of what’s important to her. Considering all of this, it’s no surprise that one of the most heartening aspects of this novel is seeing Gracie grow in confidence and begin to work on something for herself and herself alone. Her budding friendship with Fangli is also a true joy to see, and the way in which Gracie helps Fangli to take charge of her own life and mental health when she realises that Fangli is suffering from more than just burn out is a strong subplot with an important discussion and I wish we could have spent more time seeing it play out.
Ultimately, The Stand-In is a wish-fulfilment novel, and it definitely makes that clear from the very first page. It is formulaic and its ending feels both convenient and rushed while, disappointingly, it only scratches the surface of some more interesting topics that aren’t explored often in romance books. However, if you’re looking for a fun, simple story that explores the idea of family, public vs private personas and a sweet romance with a tongue-in-cheek behind the scenes look at superstar glamour, then The Stand-In is a diverting, if predictable, book to pick up.
The Stand-In was published by Sourcebooks on 3 May 2022