First look: Emily Henry's next novel goes meta — really meta
Emily Henry has taken her readers to the beach and on high-end European vacations, and now she's going right inside their minds with her latest novel, Book Lovers. It follows literary agent Nora Stephens, a book-obsessed type-A go-getter who gives everything she has to her career but would really rather be the heroine of her own story. She decides to join her sister on a monthlong sojourn in small-town North Carolina, but the New York literary world — specifically editor Charlie Lastra — follows her.
Book Lovers will hit shelves May 3, 2022, but EW is offering up a first look with the cover reveal and a peek inside the pages.
Excerpt from Book Lovers, by Emily Henry
I smooth my hair, square my shoulders, and head inside, the blast of air conditioning scrubbing goosebumps over my arms.
It's late in the day for lunch, so the crowd is thin, and I spot Charlie Lastra, near the back, dressed in all back like publishing's own metropolitan vampire.
We've never met in person, but I double-checked the Publishers Weekly announcement about his promotion to Executive Editor at Wharton House Books and committed his photograph to memory: the stern dark brows, the light brown eyes, the slight crease in his chin beneath his full lips. He has the kind of dark mole on one cheek that, if he were a woman, would definitely be considered a beauty mark.
He can't be much past his mid-thirties with the kind of face you might describe as boyish, if not for how tired he looks and the gray that thoroughly peppers his black hair.
Also, he's scowling. Or pouting. His mouth is pouting. His forehead is scowling. Powling.
He glances at his watch.
Not a good sign. Right before I'd left the office, my boss Amy had warned me Charlie was famously testy, but I wasn't worried. I'm always punctual.
Except when I'm getting dumped over the phone. Then, I'm six-and-a-half minutes late apparently.
"Hi!" I stick out my hand to shake his as I approach. "I'm Nora. So nice to meet you in person, finally."
He stands, his chair scraping over the floor. His black clothes, dark features, and general demeanor have the approximate effect on the room of a black hole, sucking all the light out of it and swallowing it whole.
Most people wear black as a form of lazy professionalism, but he makes it look like a capital-c Choice, the pairing of his relaxed merino sweater, trousers, and brogues giving him the air of a celebrity caught on the street by a paparazzo. I catch myself calculating how many American dollars he's wearing. Libby calls it my 'disturbing middle-class party trick,' but really it's just that I love pretty things and often online window-shop to self-soothe after a stressful day.
I'd put Charlie's outfit at somewhere between eight-hundred and a thousand. Right in the range of mine, frankly, though everything I'm wearing except my shoes was purchased second-hand.
He examines my outstretched hand for two long seconds before shaking it. "You're late." He sits without bothering to meet my gaze.
Is there anything worse than a man who thinks he's above the laws of the social contract, just because he was born with a good face and a fat wallet? Grant has burned through my daily tolerance for self-important asshats. Still, I have to play this game, for my authors' sake.
"I know," I say, beaming apologetically but not actually apologizing. "Thank you for waiting for me. My train got stopped on the tracks. You know how it is."
His eyes lift to mine. They look darker now, so dark I'm not sure there are irises around those pupils. His expression says he does not know how it is, re: trains stopping on the tracks for reasons both grisly and mundane.
Probably, he doesn't take the subway.
Probably, he goes everywhere in a shiny black limo, or a gothic carriage pulled by a team of Clydesdales.
I shuck off my blazer (herringbone, Isabel Marant) and take the seat across from him. "Have you ordered?"
"No," he says. Nothing else.
My hopes sink lower.
We'd scheduled this get-to-know-you lunch weeks ago. But last Friday, I'd sent him a new manuscript from one of my oldest clients, Dusty Fielding. Now I'm second-guessing whether I could subject one of my authors to this man.
I pick up my menu. "They have a goat cheese salad that's phenomenal."
Charlie closes his menu and regards me. "Before we go any further," he says, thick black brows furrowing, his voice low and innately hoarse, "I should just tell you, I found Fielding's new book unreadable."
My jaw drops. I'm not sure what to say. For one thing, I hadn't planned on bringing the book up. If Charlie wanted to reject it, he could've just done so in an email. And without using the word unreadable.
But even aside from that, any decent person would at least wait until there was some bread on the table before throwing out insults.
I close my own menu, and fold my hands on the table. "I think it's her best yet."
Dusty's already published three others, each of them fantastic, though none sold well. Her last publisher wasn't willing to take another chance on her, so she's back in the water, looking for a new home for her next novel.
And okay, maybe it's not my favoriteof hers, but it has immense commercial appeal. With the right editor, I know what this book can be.
Charlie sits back, the heavy, discerning quality of his gaze sending a shockwave through me. It feels like he's looking right through me, past the shiny politeness to the jagged edges underneath. His look says, Wipe that frozen smile off your face. You're not that nice.
He turns his water glass in place. "Her best is The Glory of Small Things," he says, like three seconds of eye contact was enough to read my innermost thoughts, and he knows he's speaking for both of us.
Frankly, Glory was one of my favorite books in the last decade, but that doesn't make this one chopped liver.
I say, "This book is every bit as good. It's just different—less subdued maybe, but that gives it a cinematic edge."
"Less subdued?" Charlie squints. At least the golden-brown has seeped back into his eyes so I feel less like they're going to burn holes in me. "That's like saying Charles Manson was a lifestyle guru. It might be true, but it's hardly the point. This book feels like someone watched that Sarah McLachlan commercial for animal cruelty prevention, and thought, but what if all the puppies died on camera?"
An irritable laugh lurches out of me. "Fine! It's not your cup of tea. But maybe it would be helpful," I fume, "if you told me what you liked about the book. Then I know what to send you in the future."
Liar, my brain says.
Liar, Charlie's unsettling, owl eyes say.
This lunch—this potential working relationship—is dead in the water.
Charlie doesn't want to work with me, and I don't want to work with him, but I guess he hasn't entirely abandoned the social contract, because he considers my question.
"It's overly sentimental for my taste," he says eventually. "And the cast is caricatured—"
"Quirky," I disagree. "We could scale them back, but it's a large cast—their quirks help distinguish them."
"And the setting—"
"What's wrong with the setting?" The setting in Once In A Lifetime sells the whole book. "Sunshine Falls is charming."
Charlie scoffs, literally rolls his eyes. "It's completely unrealistic."
"It's a real place," I counter. Dusty had made the little mountain town sound so idyllic I'd actually Googled it. Sunshine Falls, North Carolina sits just a ways outside Asheville.
Charlie shakes his head. He seems irritable. Well, that makes two of us.
I do not like him. If I'm the archetypical City Person, he is the Dour, Unappeasable Stick-in-the-Mud. He's Ebenezer Scrooge, second-act Heathcliff, the worst parts of Mr. Knightley.
Which is a shame, because he's also got a reputation for having a magic touch. Several of my agent friends call him Midas. As in, everything he touches turns to gold. (Though admittedly, some others refer to him as The Storm Cloud. As in, he makes it rain money but at what cost?)
The point is, Charlie Lastra picks winners. And he isn't picking Once in A Lifetime. Determined to bolster my confidence, if not his, I cross my arms over my chest. "I'm telling you, no matter how 'contrived' you found it, Sunshine Falls is real."
"It might exist," Charlie says, "but I'm telling you Dusty Fielding has never been there."
"Why does that matter?" I ask, no longer feigning politeness.
Charlie's mouth twitches in reaction to my outburst. "You wanted to know what I disliked about the book—"
"What you liked," I correct him.
"—And I disliked the setting."
The sting of anger races down my windpipe, rooting through my lungs. "So how about you just tell me what kind of books you do want, Mr. Lastra?"
He relaxes until he's leaned back, languid and sprawling like some jungle cat toying with its prey. He turns his water glass again. I'd thought it was a nervous tick, but maybe it's a low-grade torture tactic. I want to knock it off the table.
"I want," Charlie says, "early Fielding. The Glory of Small Things."
"That book didn't sell."
"Because her publisher didn't know how to sell it," Charlie says. "Wharton House could. I could."
My eyebrow arches and I do my best to school it back into place.
Just then, the server approaches our table. "Can I get you anything while you're looking over the menus?" she asks sweetly.
"Goat cheese salad for me," Charlie says, without looking at either of us.
Probably he's looking forward to pronouncing my favorite salad in the city inedible.
"And for you, ma'am?" the server asks.
I stifle the shiver that runs down my spine whenever a twenty-something calls me ma'am. This must be how ghosts feel when people walk over their graves.
"I'll have that too," I say and then, because this has been one hell of a day and there is no one here to impress—and because I'm trapped here for at least forty more minutes with a man I have no intention of ever working with, I say, "And a gin martini. Dirty."
Charlie's brow just barely lifts. It's three PM on a Thursday, not exactly happy hour, but given that publishing shuts down in the summer, and most people take Fridays off, it's practically the weekend.
"Bad day," I say under my breath as the server disappears with our order.
"Not as bad as mine," Charlie replies. The rest hangs in the air, unsaid: I read eighty pages of Once in a Lifetime then sat down with you.
I scoff. "You really didn't like the setting?"
"I can hardly imagine anywhere I'd less enjoy spending four-hundred pages."
"You know," I say, "you're every bit as pleasant as I was told you would be."
"I can't control how I feel." he says coolly.
I bristle. "That's like Charles Manson saying he's not the one who committed the murders. It might true on a technical level, but it's hardly the point."
The server drops off my martini and Charlie grumbles, "Could I get one of those too?"
Excerpted from Book Lovers, by Emily Henry, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022