I would call Stephen and Jean Kaladeen are a power couple: Stephen, a U of T alum, is a published doctor who has made great strides in discussing burnout and mental health in the medical industry, while his wife, Jean, is an animal welfare advocate and healthcare manager. But how do these skills transfer to the industry of romance novels?
The Kaladeens’ first collaborative novel, Kiss Me Better, is a lighthearted friends-to-lovers workplace romance. We meet Raj and Diana, two young postgrads looking to find stable love and settle down. Raj is completing his residency at a hospital in rural Ontario, and Diana takes a temporary job with her father at the same hospital after attending acting school in Toronto.
In this way, the beginning of this story resembles the lives of its authors: Stephen and Jean met while working at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, where Jean was a cancer researcher and Stephen was a resident. As the story progresses, we see Raj and Diana’s relationship unfold and their love flourish as they navigate the struggles of Raj’s demanding job as well as Diana’s toxic romantic past.
Overall, the passion the authors have for these characters and the story is clearcut. However, the current standard for love stories are just as high as their popularity, making it very hard to find books that can hit that quality benchmark. Bestselling novels such as Ali Hazelwood’s Love Hypothesis, which shares a similar concept to Kiss Me Better — a workplace romantic comedy between two scientists — comes to mind as a successful example. Hazelwood’s books not only have a fun and compelling plot, but are also expertly crafted and written. A good romance story should aptly build up the tension between the protagonists and create a tangible mood through its descriptions.
During the build-up, the flow of Kiss Me Better felt fragmented. While the book contained some good ideas, it felt like multiple different thoughts strung together rather than a seamless story. I assume the authors wanted to use a blend of story fragments to show the chaos of these characters’ lives, but I feel the narrative jumping was overused. As a result, many details felt random and out of place.
Furthermore, part of the allure of any novel is the reader’s ability to use their imagination in conjunction with the author’s writing. The Kaladeens are new to publishing fiction together, and this was sadly evident. While reading this novel, the authors had a habit of ‘showing,’ not ‘telling,’ which did not allow the reader’s imagination to flourish.
Kiss Me Better did, however, have some saving characteristics. The book ends on a cliffhanger that manages to tie up all its loose ends while leaving room for readers’ imagination. In this aspect, I would say the authors did an amazing job. It’s clear the authors had a vision — but the execution didn’t meet the standard of modern romance novels.
Putting aside the quality of the writing, Raj and Diana’s story is funny and relatable. Kiss Me Better lightheartedly deals with cultural struggles, making this novel a refreshing read for Indians and immigrants. As an Indian woman myself, I appreciated seeing an Indian man romanticized in a positive, non-fetishizing way. Adding this cultural layer makes this novel truly feel personal, showing the authors’ passion for their different heritages and incorporating that into modern romance. Furthermore, the workplace lovers trope is widely loved and recognizable, and Kiss Me Better included that trope to the medical field. While the overall descriptive capacity of the writing was lacking, the story will surely resonate with a lot of people.
Clearly, these authors are passionate and intelligent. They deserve much credit for their efforts and confidence, especially since romance is not an easy genre to write. That being said, while the authors’ personal love story is felt in the novel, its writing unfortunately did not do their passion project justice.
Editor’s note (October 6): An earlier version of this article stated that the authors were first-time novelists. In fact, this was not the authors’ first novel; Dr. Stephen Kaladeen was on the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour’s 2016 longlist for his first novel, The Secret Life of Doctors. Some minor wording has also been updated for clarity.
Editor’s note (November 26): An earlier version of this article contained several factual inaccuracies. It mistakenly wrote that the story was set in Toronto, when it is actually set mostly in St. Jerome, a small fictional town in Ontario. The description of Jean Kaladeen’s career was also originally inaccurate, and the review previously misconstrued the protagonist Diana as having taken a hospital job “aimlessly,” which is inaccurate to the plot of the book. These factual errors have been corrected. We’ve also updated some wording for clarity, and to clarify that the book bills itself as a “romantic comedy,” not a romance novel. The Varsity regrets these errors.