Novelist Bolu Babalola Explains 'My Best Friend's Wedding'

The writer's latest romance confection 'Honey & Spice' is out now.

Design by Mallory Rosten for Thrillist

When reading books lately, all I personally want is escape—from my mind, body, country, everything. Romance, a genre that's long been unfairly maligned, in recent years has become a perfect vehicle for escapism as its boundaries have grown, globally showcasing more diverse writers, set all over the world (or in the case of Casey McQuiston's latest time travel), and modernizing the genre beyond the bodice rippers many of us remember stealing from our parents' bookcase.

31-year-old Bolu Babalola has been one of the writers transforming the genre, first with 2020's Love in Color, an anthology that modernizes ancient love stories from Greece, Africa, and Asia for a new audience. What's important for Babalola when she's writing is thinking about what she wanted when she was growing up. "There's more diverse writers and Black writers, and Black women writers who write with humor and hope and romance. I gobble that up, but growing up, I just didn't have that at all," she says. "And it means so much to me when I do panels and conversations with all these women from marginalized backgrounds to be like, 'I feel seen and heard and held, and I've never read a girl like this before who looks like me, and sounds like me and talks like me.'"

And "the babygirls and babyghels" are who Babalola dedicates her new book to, Honey & Spice—her debut novel that's out now. She had been working on it for years before Love in Color was released, and she's thankful that the collection ended up coming out first. With the extra time, she was able to refine the story between her college student protagonists, Kiki and Malakai, who, after tarnishing their reputations one night at a party, embark on a fake relationship in order to save their reputations and future college extracurriculars.

Of course, a rom-com fanatic like Babalola knows that slow-build chemistry and witty banter make the genre shine, and Honey & Spice is a sweet, smart, sexy book that got me out of a reading slump. Besides knowing what makes a good romantic pairing, Babalola keeps women and friendship at the core of the novel. A woman can see herself in Kiki, even when you don't necessarily want to, like when she shuts herself off from the people who care. That tension is purposeful—it's something that Babalola strives to have in all of her work, a "mission statement" that started with Love in Color.

"Each story represents something that I want to tell and the kind of women that I want to represent and portray. Flawed women, the strong women, who are also soft and really sweet and really in tune with their desire," Babalola says. "This is not about a man choosing a woman or a partner, it's about the woman being very much in control of who she wants." With that driving her work, it's no surprise that Babalola wanted to chat with Thrillist about her favorite rom-com, My Best Friend's Wedding—a film that's helped to inspire her own stories.

Julia Roberts

My Best Friend's Wedding, directed by PJ Hogan and written by Ronald Bass, was released in 1997, during the years of the peak romantic comedy boom. In it, America's sweetheart Julia Roberts plays Jules, a 28-year-old food critic who finds out her best friend Michael (Dermot Mulroney) is marrying the 20-year-old college junior Kimberly (Cameron Diaz) after they made a pact years ago that they would marry each other if they weren't hitched by age 28. Realizing that Michael is the love of her life, Jules does everything she can to ruin the wedding, including roping her friend and editor George (Rupert Everett) in on her plans. The movie was a box-office success, but Roberts' turn as a woman hellbound to break up a marriage was a huge turn for her career.

It's the messy, lovable protagonist who isn't necessarily likable. Actually, I feel like Julia Roberts is likable, but she's unlikable in the prescribed format of likable. She's very much against the grain of girl-next-door that Julia Roberts usually plays. Well, in a way—she did play Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride. They weren't exactly girls next door. But she was very much America's sweetheart at that time. And she plays, essentially, what is on paper a homewrecker, right? Despite that, I think it's a testament to both the writing and Julia Roberts. Her heart shines through. And it's weird that even though what she does is technically mean, it doesn't really feel malicious and somebody whose motives or heart are relatable. And with my protagonist, like with Kiki, she does things that are weird and contradictory and maybe hypocritical. But when you go below the surface, you're like, "Oh, I get this girl."

It's aged well because think about shows like Fleabag and Insecure with all these messy female protagonists that we're only now allowing room for and understanding that they can exist. I think it was quite powerful in the '90s to have somebody who is so seemingly perfect, but self-destructive and messy and kind of immature. There was a freedom in seeing a character that's so imperfect, but she's lovable at the same time.

Rupert Everett

English actor Rupert Everett plays George, Roberts' friend and editor who saves the day throughout the film simply by being Jules' voice of reason. On top of that, he's fantastically charming and suave—the infamous Dionne Warwick song proves that. But he's also a gay character that's written like a human, not a bunch of harmful stereotypes.

Rupert Everett is so handsome and he is almost like a rom-com lead in that movie because he is one of Jules' great loves. They love each other, and I think he is just not romantic, but he is her soulmate in that movie. And it's so powerful because it's weird that even today we see those tropes of having a gay best friend and they're just not well done. They're just either really sassy or just a psychic, whereas Rupert Everett felt like a fully realized character whose personality wasn't just gay. It was like, "Oh, he's just a really funny, charming, loving person who is gay."

He's part of the reason why I love the movie so much because, along with Julia Roberts, he powers the warmth, and even though the ending is not what she hoped, he's still there for her and their love is real and it's strong. In my work as well, I love to celebrate friendships.

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The ring scene

Perhaps one of the most chilling scenes at first in My Best Friend's Wedding is when Jules gets a wedding band, not intended for her, stuck on her ring finger. But then it quickly becomes the sexiest, when Michael, in order to get Kimmy's ring off Jules' finger, puts it in his mouth and sucks the ring off.

One of my favorite scenes is when the ring gets stuck on Jules' finger. It's imprinted on my mind as generally one of the sexiest things I've ever seen in cinema, and it's so erotic and so charged, because there's no real romantic kiss in that movie.

It's not really about the physicality or the actual emotions being stereotypically romantic, but it's the emotion and the charge behind it. It was so erotic, and in that moment, there was an intimacy there. Also, there's this artistic tragedy: It's his wedding ring that he's going to marry somebody else [with] and removing it off her finger with his teeth while trying to pretend that you don't even see her that way. It's such a great display of a man being in complete denial. Also, he's able to have plausible deniability, like, "I didn't do anything with her," whatever, but you don't do that with your best platonic friend. Slap some butter on it, pull it out. Why is your mouth there?

The unsaid connection in that moment is so powerful. Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney's chemistry is generally one of the best pairings I've ever seen in a rom-com. I saw an interview with them last year and they're obviously very great friends. The way that they just bounced off each other. They genuinely like each other and it permeates their performance.

The Jules-Michael-Kimmy triangle

The emotional meat of the film lies in the Jules-Michael-Kimmy love triangle. It's a testament to how well executed the film is: It's easy to shift alliances between all three throughout the film. After Kimmy's dreadful karaoke performance, she's just so winning that you see exactly why Michael has fallen for her. But then when you see Jules and Michael slow dance on the ferry, you can't help but think they are made for each other. And when Jules and Kimmy interact, you wish they both would leave Michael in the dust.

[Jules and Micheal's] love is real. I don't finish watching that movie thinking, "Oh, well they weren't really in love with each other or he doesn't love her." Even though he marries somebody else, there was no doubt in my mind that these are two people who are in love with each other. That's the realistic tragedy in it because I don't think they were brave enough to confront that.

The way I saw it, Michael was marrying somebody who was convenient for him. She was really pretty, she was young, she was waiting to leave her job for him. Not even leave her job, leave college for him. Wasn't she 20 years old or something?

So, that was problematic on its own, and then Jules is a full-grown woman, his equal in many ways, and messier and uncontrollable. And, Michael to me is a really good example of a flawed man who isn't necessarily bad, but he isn't great either. Who is genuinely terrified of love and he marries somebody out of cowardice. This isn't to say that he doesn't love Kimmy, but the love that he has for Jules is so clearly different and so clearly deeper. As a love story, that's what I love because it really dives into the complexity of the emotion.

He loves the idea of Jules, but he's scared of the reality of her, and he's down there with this beautiful, wonderful girl in his arms, but he is looking up. So, he is not focused on either girl. To be frank, both women deserve better. It's also so wild to me that he just told her he was getting married. She didn't know when he was dating her or anything. And then, he comes over and he is flirting with her and removing rings off her finger with his mouth, and I'm just like, "You know what you're doing."

I think he would've been really happy for her to just properly ruin the wedding. He just didn't have the guts to do it. One of my favorite moments—I mean, I'm saying everything is my favorite moment—was when they're on a ferry and they have this moment and it's so gorgeous, and there's the potential crackling in the air, right? But the moment passes and they move onto the bridge, and they just don't mention it again.

It just shows it's about the vulnerability of love as well. Sometimes it really is about timing and also courage. I think in rom-coms, saying "I love you" is so easy. It's the hardest thing in the world. It's standing naked in the town square. It's offering your heart to somebody, and hoping they're not going to break it and smash it on the floor. That moment really hones in on that vulnerability because these are people who very clearly are in love with each other, but neither have the courage to actually confront it, and say it to each other when the moment is there. That's the tragedy of it all. That's what I love about this movie so much, because it's so funny, and so warm, and so sweet, but there's an edge to it.

The ideal sequel

As a mega fan of My Best Friend's Wedding, Babalola has ideas for a sequel which delve into many of the ideas that she explores in her own work about romance.

The thing is, realistically, they can't actually stay in each other's lives. It's either they get together, or they just never speak again because you can't be friends with somebody you're in love with.

But I am such a romantic. In my head, Cameron Diaz's character grows up and she has a couple of kids and then she's like, "I wasted my twenties. Are you kidding me?" Divorces him, gets a lot of money in the divorce. Had a very illustrious career with a beauty empire. Jules, obviously, has her own food show. She travels the world and talks about food, kind of like Anthony Bourdain. She's very, very successful and this guy's divorced. But they encounter each other one day and they rekindle their love. And it begins slowly, but they fall in love again and they're more mature and they're ready this time, because I do really think that sometimes love is about maturity and growing into the person you're meant to be for that love. And maybe at that point they weren't ready for each other really. The love was present, but it wasn't enough. I think that's what I love about the movie so much. It doesn't discount their love, but it just shows that sometimes love isn't enough. There has to be something else. You have to have the courage and you have to be ready for it. And I think in that film, neither of them were really ready for it.

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Kerensa Cadenas is the Editorial Director of Entertainment at Thrillist. You can follow her @kerensacadenas.