'Hot Stuff:' December romance novels probe questions of identity
The end of the year often proves a time for self-reflection — a time for us to evaluate the past year’s successes and failures, whether they be personal, professional, romantic, or otherwise. That can also invite us to probe our own identities — whether we’re being true to ourselves; happy in our jobs, relationships, etc. It’s fitting, then, that the five romance novels we’ve chosen to review for December grapple so heavily with questions of identity, self-love, and the challenges of finding (or losing) yourself inside a relationship — particularly, when in all the reads this month, that bond forms with the person you’d least expect.
By Christina Lauren
Review: For decades, the tale of a marriage of convenience that becomes something more has inspired countless romances. With Roomies, Christina Lauren put a fresh, modern spin on the trope with their completely un-put-down-able green card romp. Holland Bakker is entranced by the busker in her local subway station, an Irishman named Calvin McLoughlin (only she doesn’t know that yet). When she recommends him to her Lin-Manuel Miranda-esque genius musical composer uncle for a role in his Broadway phenomenon, Calvin gets the break of a lifetime — until Holland finds out he’s in the U.S. illegally. On an impulsive whim (and driven by her months-long crush), she marries him to help ensure the success of Calvin’s career and her uncle’s show. Lauren crafts an entrancing, addicting love story that pulses with drama, humor, and intimacy. It’s a rare treat to find the musical theater world as a backdrop for a romance novel and the backstage antics will ring true to any theater nerd worth their salt — intense camaraderie and devotion meld with episodes of jealousy and petty politics as Lauren crafts an intoxicating world behind the curtain. Anyone who has ever nursed an outlandish crush will rejoice and cringe for Holland as her wildest dreams are forced to contend with reality when she marries a man who has largely only existed in her fantasies. The chemistry between Holland and Calvin is full of warmth and charm, greatly enhanced by Lauren’s perfect employment of Calvin’s Irish brogue to demonstrate an aspect of his undeniable appeal (without overpowering the action on the page with vernacular dialogue). When it comes to the romance genre, a happily-ever-after is a treasured promise, but here it feels deliciously uncertain, asking you to come along for the roller-coaster ride of Holland’s journey from idealized crush to deeper, more imperfect love. Best of all, the heart melting, rom-com worthy relationship at the heart of the novel is just the cherry on top of a more profound journey of self-discovery for the heroine. Holland is described as someone who views herself as a “supporting character” in her own life. It calls to mind Nora Ephron’s call to action – “be the heroine in your own story.” As Holland learns to place herself at the center of her own narrative, we are treated to an Ephron-worthy tale of empowerment and self-love that pushes all the right buttons for anyone who has ever struggled to see themselves as a leading lady in their own life (and haven’t we all?). With Roomies, Lauren masters rom-com banter and plotting, while also reminding us that the best entries in the genre are all about recognizing our own value regardless of relationship status. Note: we also named Roomies one of our 10 best romances of 2017.
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If Ever I Should Love You
By Cathy Maxwell
Review: Cathy Maxwell launches the Spinster Heiresses trilogy with the tale of Leonie Charnock, a wealthy heiress who holds a dark secret in her past. When the only man who knows the truth, the Earl of Rochdale, returns to London and demands her hand in marriage to secure his estate, she agrees out of a blend of attraction and obligation to repay him for saving her reputation all those years ago. Leonie Charnock is not your average historical romance heroine – typically, the men are designated as those with the tortured souls and dark pasts. Here, it’s all Leonie as she struggles with alcoholism that developed as a coping technique for past trauma. Maxwell creates a warm cast of supporting characters, making Rochdale’s abundant family particularly inviting and vibrant. Leonie is a resilient, compelling heroine. It’s rare to find a character of her ilk battling addiction, and though this aspect of her personality threatens to overwhelm the narrative at times, it’s easy to see why Rochdale finds it impossible to let her go – she is at turns despondent, inspirational, irresistible, and infuriating. This tale of two people striving to overcome the worst parts of themselves to be worthy of each other’s love both toes the line and subverts the notion of the “saved by love” narrative. All in all, this is an enchanting tale, but the realities of the societal understanding of alcoholism in the Regency era does leave the ending feeling slightly forced, though not altogether unearned.
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By Harper Sloan
Review: Harper Sloan concludes her “Coming Home” trilogy with this tale of tall and taciturn cowboy Clayton Davis and petite and shy Caroline Michaels. After one sizzling night with Clayton, Caroline doesn’t expect to ever see him again, but when chance brings them back together, they can’t live without each other. Clayton and Caroline are so obsessed with each other within the first few pages that all of the obstacles to their happy ending come from outside forces, making their central relationship a little dull and repetitive. How many times can you read two people confessing their blazing desire and undying love for each other? Sloan’s latest will probably test the limits of that answer. The sex scenes are written to be smoking hot, but at times, they feel a bit too over-the-top in their use of language, verging more on overly descriptive than truly sexy. Most troubling of all is the book’s reliance on the stereotype of the off-the-rails and dangerous ex, particularly Clayton’s ex-girlfriend Jessica. There is no nuance in their portrayals, and their storylines wind into dangerously reductive territory that present a knot of problematic views of mental illness, particularly as they pertain to gender and the trope of the “crazy ex-girlfriend.” Clayton and Caroline are striking character types — they’re strong, but silent personalities that feed their careers as a cowboy and bookstore owner respectively make them an intriguing central couple. However, the novel doesn’t overcome its deeply problematic and overly simplified representation of its villains.
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A Hope Divided
By Alyssa Cole
Review: Cole returns to the world of the “Loyal League,” a shadowy spy organization working to undermine the Confederacy during the Civil War that played an integral role in An Extraordinary Union, one of our top 10 romances of 2017. Here, we meet Ewan McCall, brother to Union’s detective Malcolm and Union interrogator (and thereby reluctant torturer). While imprisoned in a Confederate POW camp, he meets Marlie, a bi-racial woman with a keen interest in science and medicine, who uses her skills to administer to Union troops, Confederate deserters, and Underground Railroad passengers alike. Through a series of unfortunate events, Marlie and Ewan end up on the run themselves, seeking the very freedom they have fought to preserve. With An Extraordinary Union, Cole managed to find bright spots and snatches of romantic bliss among the all-too-real dangers of slavery and Civil War. Here, she goes even darker, infusing this novel with a bleaker view of a nation at war and the gender and racial politics that still remain an open wound at the heart of the country. As a bi-racial woman, Marlie struggles with identity and finding a place where she feels she truly belongs — this infuses every aspect of her relationship with Ewan and fuels a distrust that he could ever perceive her as anything but a sexual object. Because of this, it can occasionally be difficult to root for their pairing — more than anything, we want Marlie to feel valued, loved, and understood, but sometimes it seems the political and cultural obstacles may be insurmountable in both a practical and emotional sense. It’s gratifying to read a novel that deals so frankly with such issues and takes an unflinching view of the realities of life during the Civil War rather than reiterating the dangerous Lost Cause rhetoric that often colors romance narratives of this era. Yet, this sequel is so much darker and intense it leads the romantic moments to feel like a temporary release rather than a path to a definitive happily-ever-after — though it’s hard to knock the book for such a tactic when it so powerfully mirrors the harsh realities of life for many, particularly those struggling to survive in this era.
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It Takes Two to Tumble
By Cat Sebastian
Review: Sebastian has made a name for herself writing steamy Regency LGBT romances that find creative ways around the societal and cultural attitudes toward homosexuality in the era. It Takes Two to Tumble is her latest, and it follows intimidating, withdrawn sea captain Phillip Dacre and kind, charming vicar Ben Sedgwick. The novel reads like a Regency Sound of Music, with Ben finding his way into Phillip’s heart by helping the gruff and grieving captain connect with his free-spirited children who have chased away every tutor and governess with their practical jokes. Both men seek to find solace in the lives they’ve chosen — Phillip in the order and discipline of shipboard life, Ben in the quiet, caregiving tasks of a parish vicar. While Phillip found his solace in shipboard relationships and a marriage of convenience, Ben has shelved his feelings by burying himself in his work and promising himself to his village sweetheart. But their world is turned upside down by their desire for each other – something they’ve long tried to deny within themselves. Sebastian spins a charming yarn that clicks along with a blend of humor, perfectly calibrated yearning, and a suitable dose of family intrigue. The novel soars most in the moments where we see Phillip and Ben’s love propel them to find understanding with other members of their families. All of the angst comes from the men grappling with their sexuality in a world determined to vilify them (Ben’s profession as a man of the cloth ratchets this up in particular). Both men are so noble that they can feel a bit milquetoast in moments, but their bond overshadows any individual character blandness. From The Sound of Music vibes to the sweet romance at the heart of the novel, Sebastian’s latest checks all the boxes for a delightful winter read.
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