Just this year, I hesitantly stuck my toe into Talia Hibbert's Brown Sisters Series, after some steady reassurance from friends that the books were worth the read. I found that they were right, Get A life, Chloe Brown; Take A Hint, Dani Brown, and Act Your Age, Eve Brown were all pretty good reads, falling around the three-star mark. From that series, I've come to enjoy Hibbert as one of few fat-positive romantic-comedy writers (and even fewer who feature Black women).
The Princess Trap walks in those same footsteps, centering on the fake-dating relationship between a rakish prince of a small island and an outgoing and witty HR personnel officer at an elite (and over the top) private school.
As soon as Cherry arrives at work at the start of the book, there's a commotion about a really gorgeous guy wandering around with their principal. Cherry, being very charming and flirty, is sent in by the other office ladies to investigate.
Cherry discovers Ruben, a gorgeous, smooth talking, no-holds-barred flirt who asks her out to lunch. Flirty comments fly, footsy ensues, and the two of them head back to Cherry's after work. This is where the story really starts.
When Cherry and Ruben get themselves into a media spectacle that'll hurt both of their reputations, they come up with a plan to save face. In order to save his already tattered, princely reputation, they'll pretend to date. When Ruben's brother, the king (of a (fake?) country I can't remember), discovers his little brother's sudden engagement, he demands they return to the island.
Thalia Hibbert tries to do a lot in this novel. It's romantic comedy mixed with some difficult topics, but I found that the book fell a little flat. Hibbert gives Ruben an overly complicated two-pronged background that stretches into the realm of exaggeration and really takes away from the seriousness of it all. I don't think she really had a handle on writing abusive situations and mashing them into a romantic comedy (something that books such as Beach Read by Emily Henry excel at).
Additionally, I kept getting snagged on a few "unrealistic" points of the book. Like every Hallmark Christmas-movie-loving person, I've enjoyed tons of "I didn't know he was a prince" movies (if you've found anything that beats Julia Styles' The Prince and Me, let me know), but Hibbert's take on this didn't fully make it possible for me to extend my disbelief. Surprisingly it wasn't the "prince" aspect or any of the more whimsical elements. The part the bothered me through the entire book was that Cherry just up and quit her job (this isn't even a scene in the book), grabbed her cat, and took off to some foreign island with a man she'd known for a day.
But mainly that she quit her job with no fanfare. Ruben and Cherry met at this job, and the beginning of the book is setup really well as a critique of "elitist private academies." Ruben and Cherry bond over the fact that neither of them really supports this, even though she works there and he's thinking about donating money. It's a smart start, but it dies there and never effectively comes back into the storyline.
When Cherry quits, she goes to living in Ruben's house everyday, doing absolutely nothing but baking a couple times. Her cat doesn't even really get any attention on the page.
The elite school aspect was a strong thread that could've been stretched to really characterize Ruben and Cherry, to give both of them a purpose in this book. Instead, Hibbett weakens the characters by limiting them to Ruben's house 90% of the time, then showing a very narrow experience of abuse that doesn't really do a good job of presenting it seriously. Rather than deal with his own trauma, Ruben hyper-focuses on helping the rest of his family (a plot that was further weakened by the unnecessary royalty aspect). I would've rather seen this trauma tie back into the school and Ruben finding purpose outside of royalty by helping kids who experienced what he did.
Cherry was the least interesting part of this book, which was a real shame. She was clever and funny in the beginning of the book, but once she gets in Ruben's world, she's just along for the ride. I really would liked to see Cherry find her own place in this. As is, she's a secondary character in her own book.
I can see the potential of both Ruben and Cherry (Ruben more than Cherry), but I think the author tried to do too much with too many ideas for Ruben. She should've made Cherry more dynamic, given her a real background and a passion. She should've then tied Ruben and Cherry together more, letting them actually come together in some capacity to work through his past and the trauma he faced (I'm thinking nonprofit working with kids like him, or an after-school program - something where being a "prince" and having influence would actually matter to this book).
It wasn't a bad book; there just wasn't enough substance in Hibbert's characters or portrayal of difficult subjects. Hibbert missed a lot of opportunities to make this story really heartfelt, funny, and dynamic. I wish she would've focused on Cherry a bit more. Her base characteristics really set her up to be a catalyst for the novel; those expectations just weren't met.