Summer’s here and the time is right for romance novels that take you on all manner of emotional journeys.
This month EW reviews titles that range from historical feminist slow burn to squee-inducing rom-coms to intoxicating adventure. As temperatures rise, so does the need for ideal beach and pool-side reads, so instead of our usual five books, we’ve jam-packed our June column with six new romance releases that should have you reaching for a cooling glass of lemonade, whether you’re on a tropical holiday or safely nestled inside with the AC cranked up.
Waiting for Tom Hanks
By Kerry Winfrey
Review: With Waiting for Tom Hanks, Kerry Winfrey offers readers a fizzy rom-com with all the humor, heart, and the undercurrent of melancholy of the Nora Ephron rom-coms she pays tribute to within its pages. Annie (yes she shares a name with Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle) is a perpetually single twenty-seven-year-old who is patiently waiting for her Tom Hanks, aka her ideal rom-com hero (ideally one who is a single dad with a houseboat or a bookstore-owning magnate). It seems she might actually get her wish when a big Hollywood production announces they’re filming in her Ohio hometown, and she gets a gig as the director’s production assistant. Nothing goes as planned when she finds herself spilling coffee on the movie’s star Drew Danforth on the first day — because Annie has already decided she dislikes Drew for his cheeky interviews and devil-may-care approach to fame. Winfrey crafts a quirky, adorable tale of one woman looking for her perfect love story if only she can work up the courage to allow it to happen. Her voice zips off the page, warm and funny and bursting with all the witty banter one could ever hope for. It’s as if Nora Ephron suddenly became your best friend and then spun your heart-to-hearts into a novel. She writes believably of the world of film sets, while still winking at the tropes of the rom-com ranging from the meet-cute to the big misunderstanding to the lackluster first boyfriend to the grand gesture. Winfrey also softens some of the more problematic aspects of the genre, making Annie’s false start relationship one of mutual lack of attraction rather than resorting to character assassination or pairing a character off with a giant jerk. She celebrates and embraces the rom-com, the feel-good things we love about them, while acknowledging that life can be a lot more complicated. Yet, she also wisely taps into the way the best of the genre include such complications inherently in their storytelling. For Annie, rom-coms aren’t just escapist fare, they’re a connection to her late mother – and her parents’ love story. Winfrey taps into just why happily-ever-afters mean so much to so many – the comfort they provide in our darkest hours; the uplift they offer in an otherwise humdrum day. But she also pushes beyond that to tap into something more ineffable about them – that at the end of the day, they’re about swinging for the fences, taking wild chances, and letting go of your fear. It’s a message every rom-com heroine, including Annie, has to learn, but one that should be taken to heart. “Above all, be the heroine of your own life,” Nora Ephron once wisely urged – but that advice is often harder to follow than one might think and Winfrey’s story captures the truth of that with all the sparkling wit, verve, and abundant heart it requires.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥
The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics
By Olivia Waite
Review: This sparkling historical romance marks Avon’s first female/female historical, and while it’s certainly fair to wonder what took them this long, this title was well worth the wait. Lucy Mucheney is nursing a broken heart in the wake of her ex-lover’s wedding and her father’s passing, but a letter from the Countess of Moth looking for a translator for a groundbreaking French astronomy text presents the escape she’s craving. But when Lucy meets the countess, Catherine St. Day, she’s immediately drawn to her quiet beauty and the woman’s extraordinary skill as an embroiderer. As the two struggle to prove themselves as scientist and artist respectively, they fall deeply in love, trying to avoid the pitfalls of old wounds, censure, and more. Waite delivers a luscious gem with The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, a novel that bears all the elegance and charms of her enchanting title (which incidentally is also the name of the work Lucy publishes). Its love story is a slow burn, one carefully cultivated into a healthy blaze, as the two women work side-by-side in the library. Their romance is a quiet one, but the story itself is a deeply emotional, powerful examination of all the ways history (and the sciences) have obscured and silenced the contributions of women. Waite’s novel is an indictment of the patriarchy that seeks to topple those strictures through good humor, competence, and wounds that prick with the delicacy of the embroidery needle rather than the heavy-handedness of the sword. The novel also takes care to paint both the sciences and the arts as worthy pursuits for all genders, elevating Catherine’s skill with a needle and her traditionally feminine interests to the same level as Lucy’s attempts to break into the male-dominated sciences. Waite’s writing is a work of art all its own; her descriptions of the night sky, mathematical equations, and Catherine’s designs swirling off the page in a breathtakingly beautiful elegance that draws the reader into the characters’ passion for their projects. The novel is a bittersweet read that will make your heart ache, bursting with genuinely funny, remarkable surprises while still never straying from the reality of the quiet, secret lives women are so often asked to lead. Lucy and Catherine wish to declare themselves to the world, as artists, scientists, and as lovers – and they won’t be limited by the whims of societal expectations, learning to seize their desires in the ways that suit them rather than accommodating the narrow-mindedness of their peers. It’s a powerful tale of the subversive ways women have often been able to carve space for themselves, and while the love story is diverting, even more moving is the foundation of that love – the support that women offer each other in a world determined to grind them down and limit the scope of their dreams. Waite writes of a fledgling underground movement of scientists and artists, fueled by the efforts of Catherine and Lucy, and it’s both a thrilling testament to the work women have done for centuries and a stark reminder of what we might have lost. Romance at its best is revolutionary and rebellious, and the stories Waite is reclaiming in her fiction are an enchanting, moving testament to the power of love, yes, but even more so to the imagination, courage, and determination of the “fairer sex.”
Kingdom of Exiles
By Maxym M. Martineau
Review: With Kingdom of Exiles, Maxym M. Martineau launches a fresh new romantic fantasy series that has all the lush world-building and intoxicating magic of the Harry Potter universe edged with something altogether more adult. Leena Edenfrell is a charmer who has been exiled from her homeland, forced to sell her beloved magical beasts to stay alive. When assassin Noc and his brethren are hired to execute Leena, the two tangle in unexpected ways, leading to an agreement that she will give him and his friends beasts in exchange for her life. But Leena and Noc are drawn to each other in spite of the fact that Noc is under a dark curse that will kill her if he ever gives in to his feelings. Martineau crafts a forbidden romance of the highest order, instilling it with all the stolen glances and breathless exchanges you could wish for – and then she amps it up to the next level by steeping it in the mythology of this unique world she’s built. Beasts of imaginary brilliance are dotted across the page, at turns adorable, fierce, and heartbreaking – by the end of the novel, you’ll feel as connected to these incredible creatures as Leena does with her powers. If the creatures aren’t enough for you, Martineau also offers up a whip-crack adventure with all the attendant stakes of unrequited love, brotherhood, and exotic settings rippling with whispers of untold histories. It’s not hard to get swept up in this enchanting storytelling, a patchwork of magic, romance, loyalty, and bravery. Martineau uses her love story to explore themes of sacrifice and family, layering in a beautiful tale of found family and devotion amidst an already compelling romance. Noc and Leena are both earnest, big-hearted individuals who have been forced to dim their light to protect themselves and others. It’s a treat to watch them draw each other out, each inviting the other to expose their vulnerabilities and then delight in finally being able to feel that deeply, to risk their hearts that brazenly, in ways they had long since deemed impossible. Then, there are her supporting characters – the overly flirtatious Calem, the shy Ozias, the enigmatic Kost – who are as essential to the plot as her divine protagonists. This motley crew quickly becomes a found family, making readers fall for each of their idiosyncrasies – reveling in their all-too-human failings and their warmth that radiates off the page (an irony given that their power lies in shadows and darkness). The novel is the first in a series, so it ends with many unanswered questions and a happily-for-now that is poised to shatter in the next book. Still, this first journey is so utterly engrossing and satisfying in itself that you’re left wanting more without feeling cheated of a resolution. Martineau’s writing bursts with humor, heart, and an exquisite burst of magic that declare her a new voice as powerful (and charming!) as one of her irresistible characters.
Fix Her Up
By Tessa Bailey
Review: With Fix Her Up, Tessa Bailey has delivered the frothiest of rom-coms with the heat turned up to scorching. She makes use of a tried-and-true romance trope – the sibling’s best friend romance. Here, Georgie Castle is the youngest of three siblings and at 23, she’s determined to forge ahead with her party-planning business and make her family (really, her entire town) take her seriously. Travis Ford was their hometown’s greatest success story – a World Series winning baseball player – until an injury ended his career. Now, he’s come home to nurse his wounds and figure out what’s next. When Georgie proposes the two embark on a fake relationship to mutually achieve their goals, sparks fly. Fake dating and my brother’s best friend all in one book – it’s a wealth of tropes done so well it feels like trope Christmas. Bailey knows just how to push all the right buttons on these plot points readers adore. Her voice feels as fresh and contemporary as a Netflix rom-com, and the swoon factor is there in abundance as well, making you fall hard and fast for both protagonists. For anyone who’s ever struggled to prove themselves – to their family; to their peers; heck, even to themselves – Georgie and Travis are the perfect heroes. They each push each other to step outside their comfort zone, while providing a soft, safe place to land should they happen to fall during that endeavor. Bailey writes banter and rom-com scenarios with aplomb, but for those who like their romance on the spicier side, she’s also the Michelangelo of dirty talk. She wields filth like Da Vinci does a paintbrush, and there’s a lot to be said for an author who can fill such exchanges with all the requisite heat, enthusiastic consent, and yes, even humor, of such a scenario without veering into corny territory. She also introduces a girl group, the punnily named Just Us League, that is the perfect B-plot for our moment. With their nights full of tequila shots, tough love, and no-holds-barred support, this is a pack of gals any reader would want to hang out with. Bailey ties all of these elements – the perfectly calibrated tropes, sizzling dirty talk, and envy-inducing ladies’ nights – together with a super-charged ribbon of emotion. Travis and Georgie are navigating some of life’s greatest challenges, struggling to embrace their own value and get others to appreciate them along the way – and the way Bailey gradually builds their emotional and physical connection leads to a swoon-inducing ending any reader will fall head over heels for.
Ayesha At Last
By Uzma Jalaluddin
Review: Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha At Last is the second inventive Pride and Prejudice re-telling to hit shelves in as many months, following May’s Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev. And it’s a testament to the resonance and enduring relevance of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel that the two books are so very different. Jalaluddin’s novel transposes the classic tale of misconceptions that bloom to romance to modern-day Toronto and a tight-knit Muslim community. Ayesha is a teacher and aspiring poet, who feels worn down by the expectations of her family and the tragedy that still haunts them. Khalid is a conservative Muslim who adheres strictly to two things: his faith and whatever his mother tells him to do. All the Pride and Prejudice hallmarks are here: the overheard insult at first meeting; the flighty relative who brings shame upon her family; the wolf-in-sheep’s clothing of a handsome stranger with a dark past and unexpected connection to the hero; and the slow burn of the central romance. By using Austen’s framework to explore the cultural intricacies of this Muslim community and demolish stereotypes, Jalaluddin wisely latches on to the most universal of Austen’s themes with the same degree of specificity of the lauded British author. Using the intricacies of life in her time and a healthy dose of satire, Austen plumbed everything from gender expectations to social status to classism. Here, Jalaluddin takes hold of those themes, while also rounding them out with the specificity of religion and cultural expectations within an insulated community. To Ayesha (and to some readers), Khalid may read as excessively religious with his devotion to prayer, his traditional robe, skullcap, and beard. He’s hardly Colin Firth stepping out of a pond (yes, I know that’s a screenwriter’s invention, but the point stands). But Jaluddin wisely leans into those assumptions precisely to pull the rug out from the reader, making all of us see, alongside Ayesha, the value in digging past our own assumptions and pre-conceived notions. That may sound trite; don’t judge a book by its cover is a cliché after all. But in a culture where the media inundates us with anti-Muslim rhetoric and subverts a person’s clothing choices into a source of fear, it’s a powerful reminder that gets at how much our own prejudices and assumptions limit our romantic choices (or even platonic personal relationships). Jaluddin writes with a third-person omniscient point of view, which can feel scattered. The genre most commonly uses third-person alternating or first-person, and it’s a learning curve as a reader to adjust to this artistic choice. Ultimately, though, Ayesha At Last is a beautiful testament to the power of family, kindness, and getting out of one’s own way. Ayesha and Khalid must learn to set aside the weight of their family’s expectations, and the limited view of romance they’ve allowed themselves as a result, to take a chance on each other. There’s still so much to be explored in the work of Jane Austen, but it should be a truth universally acknowledged that using her familiar framework to give a community under-served and misrepresented by popular culture a lovely, honest, moving spotlight (and a happily-ever-after!) is one of its best uses in our current moment.
Heat Rating: 🔥
The Friend Zone
By Abby Jimenez
Review: It’s hard to accurately describe the experience of reading Abby Jimenez’s debut novel, The Friend Zone. It’s brightly colored illustrated cover and winking title are the perfect match for her fizzy voice, fueling her blunt heroine’s tell-it-like-it-is, Quentin Tarantino loving point of view. But there are few romances of late that take such an extreme left turn as this does. Without spoiling anything, The Friend Zone has a devastating gut punch in store for readers, one that will leave you emotionally drained, in tears, or just plumb outraged if you came here for a feel-good happily-ever-after. Jimenez should be praised for her willingness to tackle difficult subjects with heart and humor, but she veers so far into tragedy the book is more of a sucker-punch than a rom-com with real-life relatability. A fender bender turned meet-cute bring Kristen and Josh into each other’s lives, just as they learn they are also the best man and maid of honor in their respective best friends’ wedding. Kristen is immediately attracted to him, but she a) has a boyfriend and b) is suffering from heartbreaking infertility issues that don’t jive with Josh’s overwhelming desire to have kids. Josh and Kristen bond over their no-nonsense approach to life, love of food, and their similar sense of humor. But Jimenez makes the bizarre choice in this post-Gone Girl world to have Josh un-ironically label Kristen a “cool girl” – you know the type – the woman who loves to drink beer and can hang with the guys but is still intoxicatingly beautiful without even trying. It’s not that foul-mouthed heroines with a love of fermented wheat shouldn’t exist, so much as the stereotypical assessment of them as a “cool girl” places unreasonable expectations on women it feels like we shouldn’t be encountering in a romance novel published in 2019. Kristen’s voice is a welcome one, but the way it’s perceived by our hero is a trope that belongs in the past. Jimenez grounds her central conflict in Kristen’s fertility challenges, her reluctance to rob Josh of his desire to be a father keeping them apart. This is where the book shines the most, frankly delving into a subject that proves heartbreaking to so many but often remains a source of shame or a taboo topic. Kristen believes she’s undeserving of Josh’s love because of her own sense of her brokenness. The Friend Zone is a beautiful tale of learning to accept the love you deserve and finding a path to self-acceptance along the way – it’s an emotional testament to the walls we put up and how the ones we belong with come along to tear them down. That being said, Jimenez undercuts the power of this delicate, heartbreaking, frank examination of infertility with her ending. It’s difficult to call it a cop-out when her author’s note makes clear that Kristen’s journey is based on her friend’s similar difficulties and miraculous resolution. But it’s impossible not to feel her messages about self-love and finding self-worth beyond one’s ability to have children don’t pack the same punch because of her choices. In the midst of an even deeper tragedy that forces her characters to grab hold of happiness while it lasts, it’s easy to understand the impulse to give the readers this last ray of hope. Jimenez’s writing style shows promise – a zippy, instantly recognizable voice and fresh, funny characters. The Friend Zone often veers off-course from its best elements, undercutting its own strengths — Jimenez is in the friend zone of greatness, but she has the potential to take things to the next level.