Have you ever had a crush on a coworker—more specifically, your “work spouse”? Well, what would happen if you actually fell in love with them—and if, all this time, it turns out that they’ve been in love with you too? That’s exactly what happens to real estate analyst Cadence Lim when she catches the attention of her prospective client, startup superstar Percy Ma, and is tasked to fly to her hometown of Los Angeles and close the deal along with none other than her charming coworker Matt Escanilla.
Closing a deal with Percy Ma is more difficult than top broker Matt expected, so he’s relieved to have his favorite colleague (and secret crush) along with him. Sharing a hotel suite with him, in fact. But there’s more to Cadence’s life than Matt knows, and as obstacles arise, they must figure out how to pursue the feelings they’ve secretly had—and not lose each other before they can even begin.
Opposites attract to this workplace romance
If you watched Top Gun: Maverick for Manny Jacinto and were disappointed by his absence, good news: there’s a lot of him in Circling Back to You. Or, well, his lookalike Matt, a real estate heartthrob who’s bagged the title of SF Monthly’s Fifth Most Eligible Bachelor. Approachable, easygoing, and adored by his coworkers and large Filipino family—what’s not to love?
Meanwhile, Cadence is his complete opposite. Sharp, focused, and by the book, she has always put work first, holding her coworkers, including Matt, at arm’s length. But she has more skills than she’s had the chance to show, and visiting LA lets her shine.
Matt and Cadence live completely different lives despite working one cubicle apart: Matt is one new client away from becoming the agency’s newest director, while Cadence has been overlooked for promotions time and again. Matt is a serial dater while Cadence’s dates rarely make it past, well, the first. But what they have in common is finding solace in their daily interactions, no matter how small.
Family dynamics and culture make the story stand out
I love reading about leads of Asian descent, and it’s delightful to see a Filipino-American family in their overwhelmingly loving glory, complete with clingy lolas, doofus cousins, and children everywhere. And while Matt’s relationship with his family—who want him to finally settle down—is relatable, cultural expectations make it just as easy to understand Cadence’s difficult relationship with her own. When her brother Tristan announces that his girlfriend is pregnant, Cadence realizes that it’s her turn to take care of a father she feels resentful toward—someone she hasn’t lived with for over ten years. And that’s on top of recognizing that she isn’t appreciated enough at work, considering job offers that come her way, and learning to let those who care about her into her life.
It’s also interesting to read a novel that references the real work and cultural changes brought about by the pandemic. Matt and Cadence struggle to close the deal with Percy because he refuses to invest in expensive San Francisco locations when most of his workforce works from home. Though I am, shockingly enough, on Percy’s side in this debate, reading their conversations feels like being a fly on the wall: fascinating and insightful.
More corporate synergy than there is chemistry
Though Circling Back to You gets some things right, others fall flat. Fake dating, friends to lovers, there’s only one bed (or in this case, hotel suite)—these tropes are beloved because they rely on genuine connections and the tug of war between opening yourself up to love and not risking a friendship that means everything to you. But while Matt and Cadence are clearly attracted to each other, they don’t feel like friends; early on, Cadence wards off gossip at a charity event by awkwardly assuring a coworker that she and Matt are “just friends”, while privately thinking that they aren’t even that; they’re simply friendly. And because their friendship isn’t well-established, emotional beats don’t hit as hard as they could.
And while it’s nice to see Matt and Cadence work together and on their own, the personal and professional stakes sometimes don’t feel high enough to make you root for them. For example, Matt’s struggle of being single as his cousins get married feels shallow compared to the threat to Cadence’s autonomy. And despite a fresh twist in their wooing of Percy Ma, the plot can drag rather than intrigue.
As we say in the Philippines: “Sana all”
There is still a lot to enjoy in Circling Back to You. I read most of the novel on a flight and found myself grinning at Matt and Cadence’s banter, especially while they were trying to hide their mutual attraction. Their respect for each other’s lives, families, and career goals, despite their ups and downs, was sweet. The alternating chapters also helped delve into individual storylines and emphasized that they always wanted the best for each other.
Overall, Circling Back to You is an enjoyable summer read. Though on the longer side, readers will enjoy Tieu’s attention to detail regarding startups, workplace culture, Asian-American family dynamics, and more. And readers who would love an office romance of their own can find hope in Matt and Cadence’s story, while writing their very own.
Katya has had a torrid romance with fiction for over two decades, and sneaks out in the middle of the day for clandestine rendezvous in cafés. She works in advertising and has four poodles. You can find her on Instagram @katerinarara.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]