Hot Stuff: May romances kickstart summer with escapism
Here at EW, we love a romance for all seasons — but we can't deny that the genre seems practically made for summer, with its perfection for vacation and beach reads and the escapism that comes with the guaranteed happy ending. With Memorial Day in our rearview mirror, we review four of our favorite romances from May 2021, just in time to kick off the summer.
People We Meet On Vacation by Emily Henry
Review: Emily Henry follows up her spectacular Beach Read with this riff on When Harry Met Sally. When Poppy and Alex first meet during orientation week freshman year of college, they’re like oil and water — with her penchant for bright colors and his preference for khakis. But when they end up sharing a ride home from school for the summer, they strike up a friendship that always teeters on the edge of something more across a decade of summer trips. After their last trip blew up their relationship, causing them to barely speak for two years, Poppy is determined to take one last vacation — and set everything to rights. But will the big “what if” at the center of their friendship blow it all up? Henry flits through time, back and forth across the litany of summer getaways, with aplomb, building a breathless yearning, rather than a linear portrait of friends turned lovers. Her lyrical writing is every bit as beautiful here as it was in Beach Read, keeping readers hanging on every word and savoring sentences. Though she perhaps withholds the reveal of what caused the relationship fracture a hair too long. Those expecting the rom-com riffing of When Harry Met Sally will find pleasure here, but People We Meet On Vacation is altogether more sensual and melancholy. On the surface, it’s a book about being on vacation, the ways we get to reinvent ourselves and put reality on hold when we’re traveling. But deep down, it’s really a book about home and finding a sense of one. Both Poppy and Alex grapple with loneliness, with being truly seen, and the abject fear of losing the one person who does. Henry’s writing creates a sense of holding your breath, that anticipation and longing that lingers, filling up space when the mind is left to wander. Alex craves stability, while Poppy is always chasing a sense of belonging. Both are unmoored by the sense that they can’t live without each other, but also seem to want the exact opposite things from life. But Henry understands and probes the ways in which home is so often not a place, but a person — and the terrifying, life-altering truth of that. For Poppy and Alex, it had to be each other, but realizing you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody is far more messy, complicated, and challenging than any one grand romantic speech. And that’s what’s so lovely about Henry’s work — it acknowledges that, but it gives you the tear-jerking speech too. When it comes to her writing, we’ll have what she’s having.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
The Girl With Stars In Her Eyes by Xio Axelrod
Xio Axelrod offers a rock’n’roll romance for lovers of behind-the-scenes music stories, whether it’s a VH1 special or the glorious faux oral history of Daisy Jones and the Six. Antonia “Toni” Bennett has never chased the spotlight, but when she gets a chance to fill in with the hottest new band in the country, all-female The Lillys, she jumps at. But when it puts her back in the path of Sebastian Quick, her teenage crush and the boy who deserted her in her hometown after promising they’d get out together, it complicates things. The story chronicles Seb and Toni’s inexorable draw to each other, the gradual realization that they’ve always been in love. But it’s an extremely slow burn, with the bulk of the book dedicated to Toni’s career aspirations and the trials and tribulations of the band. So much so, I’d say it perhaps even teeters on the edge between women’s fiction and romance. But while the romance takes awhile to get going, Toni’s journey and Axelrod’s love letter to female musicians, especially ones who rock, strikes the perfect chord. Axelrod has a lifetime of insider knowledge of the music industry and it shows in her detailed descriptions of rehearsals, recording sessions, and the vagaries of art vs. commerce. Toni and the rest of the Lillys want only to prove themselves, to steamroll the sexism of the rock world with their undeniable talent. The novel plumbs these issues, as well as familial trauma, with heartfelt depth, digging into the visceral talent of the women it showcases. But Toni and Seb’s romance feels inevitable, and thereby, second fiddle to the excitement of the band’s journey. While the musical story here rocks, the romance merely rolls, which doesn’t mean it’s any less satisfying of a read — it just depends on what a reader is looking for.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥
Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall
Alexis Hall, who crafts some of the most sparkling prose in contemporary romance, returns with a new series set in the world of a Great British Bakeoff-inspired TV show. Single mum Rosaline Palmer is always afraid of falling short, for her daughter, but particularly for her parents, who have laid the weight of their extremely middle-class expectations on her all her life. But when she enters the most country’s most popular BBC baking competition, she pledges to finally do something for herself — and perhaps kickstart the life she’s dreamed of. When she meets handsome Alain, she thinks perhaps she’s met her match at last — only to find things are not always what they seem as she is increasingly drawn to the decidedly less posh electrician, Harry. Hall could’ve offered a simple love triangle here, with the delightful backdrop of a baking competition (complete with abashed, very very British contestants). But he does something altogether more interesting, drawing you in to Rosaline’s interest in Alain while laying the clues for the reader that things are headed south as he makes Harry gently irresistible. Rosaline is bisexual, and the novel grapples with that identity, particularly in the assumptions others make about her. The book does feature a sexual assault, but Hall handles it with delicacy and care, especially considering readers might not expect to find this in a rom-com about pastry. It’s both easy to see the scenario coming from a mile away, and yet, Hall writes it with such subtlety that he conveys how easily someone can find themselves in a vulnerable position. The novel is exceptionally British, not just in its turns of phrase or characters, but in its themes of class. Rosaline spends much of the novel wrestling with what others think of her, a hang-up instilled in her by her parents, and Harry is only an unexpected choice for her because of class differences. But Hall spears that too, laying it out with honesty while also confidently detailing the absurdity of classism (because only a fool would choose Alain over Harry). While the book is about a baking competition, don’t expect uncomplicated sweetness. The novel is a lot more like a choux pastry or millefeuille, intricate and layered despite its core identity as a delectable treat. It’s about upending expectations, seizing the life you deserve and to hell with what anyone else thinks. Rosaline Palmer celebrates living a life that is true to oneself, unpicking the vagaries of the courage that requires — and we give this fully baked concept our highest compliments.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥
Happy Endings by Thien-Kim Lam
Thien-Kim Lam, who is known in the romance community as the founder of Bawdy Bookworms — a subscription service for sexy romance and erotic toys, capitalizes on her past experiences with her debut novel. Trixie Nguyen is determined to make her sex toy business a success, in spite of the rift it's sparked between her and her disapproving Vietnamese parents. But when fate brings her back into the path of her ex, Andre Waller, a man who broke up with her with nothing but a post-it note, it complicates everything. Waller is trying to turn his family restaurant Mama Hazel’s into a success, and he might just be the ticket to helping Trixie accomplish her dreams — if they can keep their hands off each other. Lam crafts a sexy novel that is heavy on the heat and sex-positivity. Trixie’s dream of educating as many people as she can about pleasure is admirable (and honestly maybe sort of at least half the point of writing romance?). And it’s hard to say whether the steamy moments or the descriptions of Mama Hazel’s food are more tantalizing. But it’s hard to root for Trixie and Andre — the post-it note is a fairly insurmountable obstacle to begin with, but then both Trixie and Andre constantly jump to conclusions and make rash judgments about each other. It’s hard to see why they keep coming back to each other beyond their electric physical connection. Lam’s writing has promise with her gift for vivid prose. Her essential messaging about sex, pleasure, and equitable education for all is right on the money. Though superb on heat and thematics, she needs to dig deeper when building the ties between her protagonists.
Heat Rating: 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥