“The Charm Offensive” By Alison Cochrun: ‘Sexuality Isn’t Always A Straight Line.’

The Charm Offensive is premised around a reality dating show called Ever After, where one man dates a group of women for several weeks to find his true love (almost like The Bachelor). Except this man is one of our protagonists, Charlie Winshaw, who falls for his handler, Dev Deshpande, instead of the twenty women on the show.

“I’m just saying, you might be into dudes but also demisexual, which means you need emotional connection to feel sexual attraction. Or you might be demiromantic or graysexual or – “

He cringes. “I don’t know if the specific label is important to me.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” she says, “and you’re not obligated to figure it out, or come out, or explain yourself to anyone, ever. But also” – she drops her hands from their spectrum and tucks an arm around his shoulder – “labels can be nice sometimes. They can give us a language to understand ourselves and our hearts better. And they can help us find a community and develop a sense of belonging. I mean, if you didn’t have the correct label for your OCD, you wouldn’t be able to get the treatment you need, right?”

I saw a meme the other day on a subreddit dedicated to demisexuality, which showed two columns titled ‘Coming Out as Gay’ and ‘Coming Out as Demisexual,’ respectively. While the former included a one-liner confession, the latter preceded a lengthy paragraph. It do be like that, I thought out loud and got back to reading Alison Cochrun’s The Charm Offensive – a queer rom-com Bookstagram inspired me to read.

About the book

The Charm Offensive is premised around a reality dating show called Ever After, where one man dates a group of women for several weeks to find his true love (almost like The Bachelor). Except this man is one of our protagonists, Charlie Winshaw, who falls for his handler, Dev Deshpande, instead of the twenty women on the show. The most successful producer in the show’s history, Dev is a hopeless romantic who has spent the last six years of his career turning his fairy-tale passion into the perfect love stories for national television. On the other hand, though extremely handsome, Charlie is anything but the romantic lead Ever After’s team needs to run the show. He’s had no luck with love in the past, is super awkward in front of the cameras, and only agreed to the role so he could get back his reputation and work in tech again.

Why, you ask?

Because he was labelled crazy on account of his ‘little quirks’ and fired from his own company upon suffering a panic attack during a meeting (Yes, I know we all want to give Charlie a hug already). As the story progresses, we learn that he has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and belongs somewhere on the asexuality spectrum. In short, Alison Cochrun’s debut novel has not only a quality representation of queerness but also that of mental health.

“Sexuality isn’t always a straight line from closeted to out-of-the-closet. You can take time to explore and evolve and figure out exactly what kind of queer you are, if that even matters to you.”

Charlie and Dev

As I flipped through the last pages of the book, my thoughts went back to the meme and I wondered how being queer was more than just crouching inside a box with a label. Charlie Winshaw bounces from one labelled box to another, navigating his life as an asexual neurodivergent. Whether it’s the reason his colleagues fire him from his company or the perfect man the camera compels him to portray, Charlie is always forced back into the box he tries so hard to come out of. Since childhood, he has been deprived of any opportunity to understand himself in a safe environment, which should otherwise have assured him that he was worthy of love no matter what label he chose. As a result, he ends up being far from broken. He, instead, fixes himself to be the pseudo-Charlie people want him to be. 

Enter Dev who was brought up in a happy household, has a relatively better work-life and is more aware of his mental health than Charlie. Cochrun starts building him up as Charlie’s caretaker (both on and off set) from the very first meet-cute. Dev is the only one who actually listens to him and takes the time to sanitise his hands when Charlie says he doesn’t like to be touched (though he obviously wasn’t referring to germs). There is something so gentle about this gesture; you just know Dev is the one. Except, he’s not the only one who does all the saving.

“Most of the time, Dev is like a human bonfire walking around generously warming everyone with his presence. But burning that bright and that fiercely must be exhausting; no one can sustain it forever. Charlie wishes he could tell Dev it’s okay to flicker out sometimes. It’s okay to tend to his own flame, to keep himself warm. He doesn’t have to be everything for everyone else all the time.”

The most beautiful part of their growth as a couple is how Charlie uses all the self-awareness he gains as a result of Dev’s loving, to make the latter realise that he is worthy of love as well. In fact, when Dev is having a hard time, Charlie paraphrases his own words back to him, and we can’t help but sob along with Dev upon hearing them: “I don’t love you despite those things, I love you because of those things.” I so desperately wanted to insert Charlie’s entire monologue here, but you have got to experience it within the moment!

More reasons to pick up this book

The mushy parts of the romance align perfectly with the intense exploration of mental health – almost everyone can find a piece of themselves represented in the novel. Many readers may find the representation of Dev as an Indian-American character to be underwhelming, it’s not necessary for every multicultural book to place ethnicity at the centre of conflict. Sometimes, it’s okay to let diverse characters just take up space without constantly foregrounding their otherness.

Apart from the romance, it’s also fun to see what goes on behind the scenes of a reality TV show. Charlie’s interactions with his Ever After co-stars make up most of these scenes and complement the development of his bond with Dev. Even the secondary characters Parisa, Jules, Skylar, and Ryan are likeable as individuals and have some crucial scenes with the protagonists.

I’d just like to thank the author and tell them that this book helped me alleviate some of my late-night intrusive thoughts. In a heteronormative, sex-driven world where so many asexuals may be expected to engage in uncomfortable situations to prove their love for someone, The Charm Offensive gave me a thousand hugs and whispered to me that I’m not alone. It reassured me that whatever label I choose for myself is valid and showed me that a rainbow of happily-ever-afters exists in this universe. I just have to be brave enough to choose one for myself.

“I don’t think happily ever after is something that happens to you, Dev. I think it’s something you choose to do for yourself.”

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