At the beginning of The Very Nice Box, by Eve Gleichman and Laura Blackett, Ava, feels a bit like The Cactus or Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. She's a successful product designer at STÄDA, who divides her existence into 30-minute units and never deviates from her routine. Her life seems sad and limited, but at least she's at work on her passion project, the Very Nice Box, which is, uh, a very nice box to put your things in. There's a hint of the Quirky Girl here, although not nearly as much as the blurb and the cover art suggested. (I'd actually postponed reading this one because I need to be the right mood for a Quirky Girl who just Sees The World Differently kind of storyline.) Mostly, Ava is getting through a terrible tragedy as best she can, which makes a surprisingly relatable protag, even though if her methods are somewhat depressing, restrictive and repetitive.
The world of STADA is Cheerful Pint Glasses and Dependable Chairs, and Ava has fully embraced that, with exactly enough STADA-made work outfits to make it to the next laundry Saturday, and exactly enough STADA-made kitchenware to cook her simple meals. But it's also a tech startup world of personality colors and teambuilding parties, and Ava is significantly less interested. The slightly meaningless titles and themes felt like pretty much every hip tech job, just more, and when Ava meets the handsome new hire, Mat, he feels like every marketing bro, just more.
When Mat begins to pursue Ava, I couldn't decide if I loved Mat or wanted him to get lost. He has that extreme charisma/entitlement found in a bro who went to a good school and has a promising tech job, not to mention a network of helpful Good Guys with useful connections. As he pursues Ava, their whole relationship feels like a twist on a Manic Pixie Dream Guy, where Mat's full of life and adventure, always pulling Ava out of her sad routine, but at the same time, geez, Mat, just let a girl live in peace. I wanted him to turn it down a bit, he was just so intense, but in that familiar, grand-gesture familiar from so many romantic movies.
I warmed to Mat a bit when he started driving Ava to work. A few years ago, a coworker who just happened to live in my neighborhood offered me a ride in for a week when bridge construction was going to screw up the train. Then we rode to work together for the next 2 years, and became good friends, and play games together in pandemic lockdown even though neither of us works at that school or lives in that neighborhood anymore, and what I'm saying is, I believed that Ava and Mat could become friends in their commute time.
I mean, I can drive, but why would I drive a car and feel stressed, when I could sit on the train reading a book? Like this book!Ava doesn't want to be labeled (the Very Nice Box is not for people), but this is also a queer story. It's not a coming out story, and it's presented as just a part of Ava's life. When she feels like dating, she's not really focused on gender and could be interested in both men and women.
I enjoyed the familiar feel of STADA life and the ridiculous world of the Good Guys, as I followed the misdirections and surprises here. Readers are led to discover more about Mat and about Ava as their relationship unfolds. It's a surprising story, but the motivations are believable, even when some of the actions and choices are, uh, unusual and extreme, to say the least.
The end is a satisfying conclusion to our look into this world. (With only the mildest of spoilers into a subplot, I really wanted good things to happen for Ava's friend Jaime, and he got good things.) The whole conclusion made sense with what we know about the characters' lives.