Hot Stuff: Unlikely connections abound in April romance novels
They say opposites attract, and that's certainly the case in some of April's best new romance novels.
From the bickering lovers of To Love and to Loathe to the class differences in The Duke Undone to the oil-and-water mix of a rabbi and a retired porn star of The Intimacy Experiment, there's no shortage of odd couples in this month's swoony standouts. But that only means there's something for everyone to love. Here's our reviews of five of the best romance novels of April 2021.
To Love and to Loathe, by Martha Waters
Martha Waters made her debut last spring with Regency rom-com To Have and to Hoax, but she elevates her deliciously witty prose to high art with this follow-up tale of enemies with benefits. There is perhaps nothing Diana, Lady Templeton, and Jeremy, Marquess of Willingham, love more than bickering with each other. So when the two agree to enter a mutually beneficial liaison, it’s with the self-assurance that it will be purely for research purposes. Naturally, they immediately begin to open up to one another and realize they’re madly in love. Diana and Jeremy are the type of people who hide their emotional wounds behind self-deprecation, biting bons mots, and reveling in their reputations as a flirt and a rake. In the end, only they can see through and understand their defense mechanisms for what they are, opening each other up to more self-awareness. Waters has an arch sense of humor and a marvelously witty voice that rivals the best of the Regency authors (see: Julia Quinn, even Austen herself). She threads the needle deftly, couching her sharp banter in a gentleness that makes To Love and to Loathe as confectionary as a box of macarons. Diana and Jeremy are endlessly brilliant when it comes to skewering each other, but exceedingly dumb when it comes to the business of their own hearts. Waters makes it a sheer delight to watch their emotional intelligence evolve. Not to mention, she doesn’t pull her punches, writing brilliantly of Jeremy’s inflated opinion of his bedroom skills and Diana’s willingness to coach him into becoming a better lover. Both Jeremy and Diana feel so remarkably real, their failings relatable, their saucy retorts aspirational. The only thing wrong with this book is how desperately I wished it could go on forever. To Love and to Loathe is something we could all use more of: unabashedly fun and bursting with screwball energy. It’s a romp of the highest order, difficult to put down and effervescent with its own abundant charm.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Second First Impressions, by Sally Thorne
It’s impossible to know where to start when it comes to cataloging all the joys of this novel. It’s so engrossing it made me want to abandon everything to devote my time to devouring it, only to mourn the lack of more once I had finished. And the sensation of reading it is nothing so much as being engulfed in the warmest, most tender of embraces. Something that is perhaps easily lost in the mammoth rom-com success of Thorne’s debut The Hating Game is that as a writer, Thorne, whose voice is enviously distinct, is deliciously quirky. Not “manic pixie dream girl” male-fantasy quirky, but really and truly delightfully odd. Second First Impressions bursts with this specificity that lends it such vivid, precise life. Ruthie Midona has built herself a safe life of cardigans and routine, tending to the residents of Providence Retirement Villa. But when tattooed wonder Teddy Prescott confuses her for a little old lady, she stars to wonder if she’s letting all that life has to offer pass her by. As Teddy accepts an impossible job of assisting the two most demanding residents of the Villa, Ruthie starts to ponder what it means to give and take in a relationship. Teddy needs to believe he’s worthy of putting down roots, while Ruthie has to learn to live a life that leaves room for risk. There’s no grand concept here, no audacious adventure — it’s just two people becoming slowly essential to each other. Thorne crafts a vibrant world, complete with endangered tortoises and an eccentric pair of old women who lend the story touches of bite and absurdity. It all feels so achingly, bruisingly real — this intense need for someone to believe in you, to see you, to love you just as you are. And what makes Second First Impressions so magical is that it lives in and honors the astonishing simplicity of that, marveling in whimsical details such as the floral pattern of Ruthie’s wallpaper, the comfort of her candlelit bathtub, or the complex beauty of Teddy’s tattoos. There’s a lot going on here too — feeling suffocated by religion, needing to prove oneself, the sense of getting old before one’s time, and the terror it takes to open oneself back up to the world. But ultimately, Second First Impressions is about realizing that life is short, and that to live it to the fullest we must be both selfish and selfless. It urges us to soak up the beauty of each passing moment — and this wondrous book is a good place to start.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
The Duke Undone, by Joanna Lowell
Joanna Lowell merges all the traditions of the Victorian novel with the romance genre in this deft and dense ode to 19th-century art and love. When Royal Academy student Lucy Coover trips over a naked man in a London alley, she seizes the golden opportunity for life drawing and channels her memories of his muscular form into a scandalous painting. But when the man himself, Anthony Philby, Duke of Weston, turns up to confront her about her audacious art, the two are inexorably drawn to each other. Lucy is a fierce feminist, fighting for women’s right to be educated and critiqued as equal to male artists alongside fellow friends at the academy. The Duke is a louche drunkard, trying to drown out his family’s brutal legacy. But the two are combustible, with Lucy pushing Anthony to find the truth and become a better man and Anthony fostering Lucy’s art. It’s as if Lord Byron and a Pre-Raphaelite painter had a fling. Indeed, Lowell and Lucy cite the Pre-Raphaelites as their inspiration, and the novel is like one of those paintings come to life — lushly dark, riddled with secrets, and seductive. The book can feel somewhat dense in places, truly reminiscent of a 19th-century novel, but in the end it simply lends the darker themes some atmospheric oomph. Lowell’s writing oozes a sense of place, from the foggy, teeming streets of Shoreditch to Lucy’s small but cozy garret to Weston’s hollow, imposing London house. While Anthony sparks to Lucy’s talent and cleverness, it can be a bit harder to discern his appeal to her beyond the magnetic pull of attraction. But the novel overrides that with its compelling mysteries and adventures, sending both characters on parallel paths of growth that bump up against the political realities of the time, from the egregious policies of mental institutions to the gap between so-called public works projects and actual government for the greater good. Lucy and Weston must contend with a great deal to find their hard-won happy ending, but Lowell’s sense of authenticity never falters, making this the most Victorian of romance novels.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
The Intimacy Experiment, by Rosie Dana
Rosie Danan has a staggering gift for subverting expectations. Much like her debut hit, The Roommate, which was packaged as a raunch-com and instead delivered the sweetest of screeds against shame, her sophomore novel, The Intimacy Experiment, draws readers in with the promise of titillation, only to deliver a sucker-punch of prosaic musings on faith and love. Naomi Grant is a hard-as-nails retired adult film star, one who has always lived by the expectation that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. Now that the sex-positive startup she helped build is an international success, she wants to keep building on her educational platform. This is how she ends up in the path of Ethan Cohen, a hot rabbi here to give all those Fleabag priest fantasies a run for their money. When Ethan hires Naomi to give a new seminar on modern intimacy designed to draw a younger crowd to his synagogue, the two immediately find Naomi’s teachings put to the test in their own mutual attraction. The Intimacy Experiment delves into some of the most pressing questions of modern love — the separation between intimacy and sex, what tenderness truly means, how we overcome our past trauma and fully open our hearts to someone. While The Roommate was all about demolishing stigma, The Intimacy Experiment is about something even more unknowable: faith, in a religious and a secular sense. The tenderness and the terror inherent in belief — in yourself, in a partner, in something bigger than all that. There’s still a fierce sex positivity here, as Naomi untethers her refusal to let others shame her from her bulletproof emotional walls. But Ethan and Naomi must learn that love is not weak or selfish, it’s merely inviting yourself and another person to live up to their potential. That reminder, and The Intimacy Experiment on the whole, is a blessing of a book —tender, bruising, sexy, and transcendent.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
An Earl, the Girl, and a Toddler, by Vanessa Riley
Vanessa Riley continues her immaculately researched Rogues and Remarkable Women series with this tale of an amnesia-plagued widow and the secret-keeping lawyer she can’t resist. Surviving a shipwreck en route from Jamaica, Jemina St. Maur is a bit of a wreck herself — suffering from amnesia, all she can remember is the time she spent imprisoned in Bedlam after the accident. Desperate to learn the secrets of her past, Jemina works with the Widow’s Grace to gain access to information, thereby trying to stay one step ahead of her liberator, barrister Daniel Thackery. But Daniel has secrets of his own, remaining dedicated to the law in his efforts to protect his stepdaughter, Hope, another survivor of the wreck that stole Jemina’s memories. As Jemina and Daniel find themselves hopeless drawn to each other, they find they’re more connected than they ever dared dream. Riley paints a vivid world, delving in to the true history of the Regency and the diverse lives lived rather than whitewashing history. Daniel is Black, and Riley doesn’t shy away from the thorny reality of that fact, including the dangerous implications of a woman’s attempt to wrongfully accuse him of assault. But perhaps most pertinently, Jemina fears the sins of her own past. As she hunts for family history, she must confront the possibility that her family secured their wealth through the slave trade — a fact for the vast majority of the British aristocracy. Regency history and the ideals we’ve assigned this world too often sweep the reality of this wealth under the rug, tacitly ignoring that the lavish lifestyles of its heroes and heroines are built on the backs of the exploited labor of people of color. Riley not only acknowledges that here, but she interrogates it and builds a satisfying romance on top of it. Her dialogue could still use some smoothing, but if readers need an escape that engages with history in thoughtful ways, there are few who do it as consistently and intelligently as she does.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥