I have mentioned before how I’m not usually drawn to romance novels (and Kath, if you’re reading, I’m sorry for being a disappointment). It’s not that I hate love, I just struggle with several aspects of the genre. Namely, the heavy reliance on miscommunications and deus ex machina to provide a happy ending, as well as the frequent trope of a happily-ever-after smoothing over all manner of other, substantial problems in the love interests’ lives.
You have real problems, people, and fantastic sex isn’t going to solve very many of them.
But if every romance or chick-lit novel were like Emily Henry’s Beach Read, it would be my favorite genre.
January is a bestselling author of women’s fiction who has built up a reputation for providing the kind of blissful endings her readers love. Unfortunately, the recent death of her father and subsequent discovery of his longstanding affair with his high school sweetheart, followed by being dumped by her long-term boyfriend, have made it a little difficult to craft a new bubbly novel to appease her agent and publisher. She flees to the lakeside house her father left to her in an effort to
hide from her problems heal. All she needs is peace and quiet, she thinks, but that’s exactly what she can’t get from her next-door neighbor and his Gatsby-like birthday party.
Wouldn’t you know it, the grumpy guy next door happens to be Gus, her nemesis from college who looked down his nose at her romantic plots and has gone on to write critically acclaimed literary fiction. As much as January tries to avoid Gus, he seems to be everywhere—at the lone coffee shop (which is also the lone bookstore), suspiciously invited to the community book club, and, of course, mere feet from her window.
But when they happen to talk, Gus admits he’s in a bit of a rut, too. Since both contend that writing in the other’s genre would be far easier than their own, they make a deal: Gus will show January what it takes to write “real” literature, while January will show Gus what he needs to give his books a happily ever after. Whoever manages to sell their cross-genre work first gets blurbed by the other.
The race is on.
This is a clear rom-com setup: enemies to lovers, bets that will undoubtedly end in beds, all that good stuff. We’ve seen it a hundred times. But with January and Gus, the fluff is undercut with enough actual emotional vulnerability that you can see their scars. Their compatibility is obvious in a hundred ways that aren’t predicated on the fact that they are possibly the only attractive, single people of comparable age within a hundred-mile radius. But what I loved so much about this book was the way both January and Gus are actively trying to heal themselves before and after falling in love. (Minor spoilers afoot.)
For example, while January doesn’t feel like going on long walks on the beach or eating cotton candy at the carnival, she musters up the old, un-heartbroken version of herself to show Gus how it’s done. Remembering who she used to be in turn gives her something to hold on to—a reminder that how she feels is not how she has always felt, and that there is hope to feel otherwise in the future. And as she goes with Gus to interview survivors of a cult, she finds new ways to understand her problems and the people who have hurt her. She comes to terms with her pain, and to the ways that she’s been unfair to others or otherwise exacerbated her own pain.
Likewise, Gus turns hot and cold as his rivalry with January deepens into affection and then into love because of a painful, heartbroken past of his own. Instead of Beach Read giving him a moody-man pass for being hot and available, Gus actually has to deal with his own frailties and find ways of healing before he’s able to form the kind of relationship he wants with January. By the time we get to the stand-up-and-cheer final kiss (and I did cheer), both January and Gus are far better people in far better places than they were when the book opened—and that’s not taking into account their burgeoning love.
I realize that I have given perhaps too many plot points away, but I don’t think knowing the end from the beginning would significantly damage anyone’s pleasure of reading it. For one thing, the genre practically guarantees that regardless of what happens in the first 90% of the book, by the ending, January will be in Gus’s strong arms, leaning in for that perfect kiss. For another, the above details about how they fall in love are crucial in differentiating Beach Read from romances that depict shallow or unhealthy relationships. And it truly is the journey, not the destination, that is such a pleasure to read here.
There are a hundred little things I haven’t mentioned, from the clarity of January’s voice to the pleasure of living in her head to sheer envy at Gus’s library to the meta validation that this whole book was born out of frustration at writer’s block. These are the things that I will enjoy again when I re-read this and that I will think about fondly when they come to mind. But the real strength of Beach Read is that it is a romance that shows what a good romance, the kind of romance that you would not just hope for yourself but for your best friend or sister, too, can be. That is what drew me in and that is what will bring me back again and again.