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Bolu Babalola’s Honey & Spice Is a Deliciously Modern Love Story

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There’s a reason why the fake relationship has had such longevity in fiction. The trope, in which two people feign being a couple before falling in love for real, is a predictable journey. But just because a happy ending is guaranteed doesn’t mean the story isn’t worth telling—as the old adage goes, getting there is half the fun.

That’s the case in Bolu Babalola’s debut novel, Honey & Spice, to be published July 5. It’s a dishy romp that gives a fresh update to the phony-relationship narrative with a charming and wholly contemporary romance between an ambitious college radio host and the campus playboy.

For Kikiola “Kiki” Banjo, a smart, self-possessed British Nigerian student at Whitewell College, there’s no time for trifling men. She’s focused on her studies and running her student radio show, Brown Sugar, where, between R&B ballads, she crusades against the “f-ckboy endemic” and doles out spicy but sage relationship advice to the women of Blackwell, the university’s African-Caribbean society. She’s got a clear vision of what her future looks like—and it doesn’t include any of the players or, as she calls them, “wastemen,” on campus.

But, for all her planning, Kiki did not anticipate handsome transfer student Malakai Korede, a talented filmmaker and notorious heartthrob with whom she shares a very public kiss before realizing who he is—and discovering that she’s already derided him on air as the ultimate wasteman of Whitewell. After begrudgingly pairing up with him for an academic project at the behest of her favorite professor, Kiki realizes that a fake relationship with Malakai could salvage both of their reputations on campus and help them achieve their professional goals. That is until, inevitably, their slow-burn flirtation forces them to confront whether there might be something more to their relationship.

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The subject of romantic love has proved rich territory for Babalola; this novel follows her first book, 2021’s Love in Color, a collection of short stories that drew inspiration from myths and fairy tales from around the world and even her own parents’ relationship. Babalola, who began her career as a screenwriter at BBC Comedy, later writing and executive-producing the show Big Age, is a self-professed “romcomoisseur”—and it shows in her storytelling. Honey & Spice begins with a meet-cute in a dorm hallway and doesn’t skimp on steamy, swoon-worthy moments.

But that’s not to say that the novel deals in clichés. While the romance genre has long been critiqued for its lack of inclusivity when it comes to featuring books by and about people of color, Babalola’s writing refuses to acquiesce to the white gaze, firmly centering the details of the story in the experiences of Black and African students at a predominantly white institution. The author’s sharp sense of humor (which fans of her social media accounts will recognize), slick pop culture references, and keen sense of the zeitgeist ensure that though her story launches off from a tried-and-true trope, it ultimately offers a refreshing portrait of what modern love really looks and feels like.

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com