In a day and age when meeting your significant other via dating apps and social media has become more common, people often forget about the safety risks and concerns that come with these methods. Although you can certainly get to know someone through messaging and video chatting, it’s easy to pick and choose what to share when you’re not speaking in person. In The American Boyfriend by Ivy Ngeow, Phoebe Wong learns this hard lesson when she brings her infant child Jojo along with her on a trip from London to Key West, Florida to meet her long distance boyfriend Carter, whom she met on LinkedIn. During this trip, she finds herself confronted with lies, secrets, and betrayals as she tries to figure out who Carter really is, and what he’s hiding.
Starting off like any typical romance novel would, the book opens with Phoebe and Jojo as they arrive in Florida, ready for a stay at Carter’s family vacation house. The taxi driver is friendly, the neighbors are friendly, and even the maintenance workers are friendly, and Phoebe is grateful and enamored by the American hospitality. Things quickly take a turn for the worse, however, because Carter is unable to be at home to welcome her as planned due to work complications, and the house is broken into and her personal belongings are stolen on night one. From then, a series of unfortunate events commence. Carter is continually held back at work in New York for a full week, and Phoebe is forced to fend for herself with her purse, payment cards, and passports now no longer in her possession. Using cash from her travel insurance, she makes it through the week with help from her friendly neighbor Roberta, who also hosts a guesthouse herself, Ted, the taxi driver from the evening of her arrival who dropped by to return a lost bottle for Jojo, Alvaro, the young college student who is doing maintenance on the vacation home, Posh Ed, one of Alvaro’s classmates who is helping work on Carter’s home and offers to babysit Jojo, and Posh Ed’s family. Despite the village that’s stepped in to take care of Phoebe and Jojo, is it not all is as it seems. When her boyfriend returns, everyone seems to warn her to stay away from him. As she slowly learns more about Carter and faces alarming events, Phoebe is left begging him to tell her the full truth. Once everything finally comes to light, it’s up to Phoebe to decide whether she wants to take Jojo and run back to London, never to see Carter again, or if she wants to give him a second chance.
With a captivating plot in just over 200 pages, The American Boyfriend is a unique novel that will keep readers at the edge of their seats all the way through the very last page. At times the story may appear predictable on the surface, but Ngeow always skillfully manages to throw in unexpected plot twists. The story is deserving of a second read, as readers may find that there are clues hidden in plain sight that they may have missed. While it is thrilling and can be considered a murder mystery, there are no jump scares or overly grotesque scenes that may deter a fearful reader. Rather than leaning towards horror, suspenseful scenes were well written and utilized an array of descriptors and details to help immerse the audience into the story, as if they were present in the scene as it played out.
Protagonist Phoebe is a Chinese-Malay young woman who was born and raised in London, and has mannerisms that reflect her multi-cultural background. This small but meaningful slice of representation brings a unique perspective to the story. She is often stuck in her own mind, allowing readers a glimpse into her thoughts with constant inner dialogue. She wonders how a small Asian woman like herself could wind up with a tall, handsome American man like Carter, and she wonders how she could overpower a strong American woman. Phoebe doesn’t easily allow herself to ask for help, and often thinks back to her mom’s strict words of advice from her childhood. These little quirks and details help make the character more realistic and relatable, consequently creating a stronger attachment for the reader to the protagonist. The suspenseful climax of the story leaves the audience tense and nervous, feeling each emotion Phoebe does easily through Ngeow’s writing.
The story is a great reminder to those who are seeking friendships and relationships from online mediums to be more cautious. Despite knowing each other for less than a year, Phoebe naively decides to make the trek to the other side of the world, even bringing her child along with her. Given the circumstances, it isn’t surprising that Carter would have something to hide and a haunting past. Aside from the possible dangers of online dating, the novel also touches on issues of gun violence in the U.S. Phoebe is shocked and horrified when realizing nearly everyone around her carries a gun for self defense, including young college student Posh Ed. When Phoebe asks why she has a gun, Posh Ed’s response is simple: “This is America.”
Not only is the plot noteworthy, the execution was as well. The American Boyfriend is paced well, going slow enough to elaborate on each scene, yet going quickly enough that it keeps readers interested. The point of view in the novel switches between characters quite often and without warning, reminiscent of the many thoughts in Phoebe’s mind and the chaos of her trip. While symbolic, the constant POV changes can cause a little whiplash for readers. If you’re not paying close enough attention, you’ll have to read again to know what’s happening. Things progress quickly, as much of the book takes place in just a two-week time period, but flashbacks and time jumps to the future help fill in the blanks on any potential questions. Just in the last several pages alone, each person’s POV wraps up the story efficiently and easily.
To put it simply, The American Boyfriend is a captivating and thrilling telling of a modern love story with its possible risks and gambles. Ivy Ngeow’s words are illustrative and expressive, and The American Boyfriend reads as if it were a screenplay or script, allowing readers to visualize and follow along with the protagonist of the story. Just as one would re-watch their favorite film to catch missed details, this novel is one that audiences will want to pick up and read again for the second time.