Content warnings: Both the hero and heroine have troubled pasts, including loss of parents, abuse, and infidelity. Also, the hero is REALLY into researching suicide cults. While this book is surprisingly sweet and light, and none of these things are described in detail, there is plenty of darkness in the backstory, so proceed accordingly.
I took one look at the blurb for Beach Read on NetGalley and one-clicked so hard that they could probably hear me do it all the way over in New Zealand.
Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast.
They’re polar opposites.
In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they’re living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer’s block.
Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She’ll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he’ll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really.
Opposites attract and a writer hero AND heroine? Oh, yes please. If I had any hesitation, it was that when you are pitting romance against literary fiction, even in jest, the genre that usually gets treated poorly is romance. But that didn’t happen here, and in fact, this book was both playful and thoughtful in its treatment of both genres and their purpose, and I found myself laughing out loud in delight at the banter. Having said that, this book isn’t all sweetness and light (Gus would never tolerate that) – finding yourself again after a great loss is a central theme of the story, and things get a bit angsty in the latter third or so of the book.
(I don’t want you to think it’s a downbeat story, however – in fact, it’s hands down the funniest book about grief that I have ever read, and the ending is pretty much perfect – definitely happy sigh and good book noise stuff.)
I want to acknowledge up front that this is a very, very smart book, and honestly, I wish it was coming out at a different time, because like many people, I’m having a lot of trouble focusing right now, and I’m not sure I’m capable of a proper critical review. So instead, let me tell you how I loved it. Because I really, really did.
January starts the book in a dark place. It’s nearly a year since her father died, which means that it is also nearly a year since she discovered that her parents’ perfect, fairy-tale romance was… if not a lie, certainly an elision of the truth, given that her father had a mistress and her mother knew about it. January has always believed in romance and happy endings because of her parents’ relationship; she has built her career as a romance novelist on her certainty of happy-ever-afters, and she is shattered by this discovery. When her own relationship breaks down under the strain of her grief and disillusionment, she finds herself single and homeless, unable to speak to her mother, and with no better option than to go and live in the beach house that father once shared with his mistress — while she tries to write a book that will contain the happy ever after she no longer believes in. As she says:
“At this point, it honestly might be easier for me to pack it in on the upbeat women’s fiction and hop aboard the Bleak Literary Fiction train. At least it would give me an excuse to describe boobs in some horrifying new way. Like bulbous succulents of flesh and sinew. I never get to say bulbous succulents of flesh in my books.”
When the writer who has rented the place next door (and who has just overheard her discussing foot-jobs while on the phone to her best friend) turns out to be her ‘stupidly, infuriatingly attractive’ lit-fic writing nemesis from her college days… well, that’s really the outside of enough. While we don’t ever get to see inside Gus’s head, he’s not precisely shy in expressing his opinions, and he makes it clear early on that he does not believe in happy endings:
“Life is pretty much a series of good and bad moments right up until the moment you die,” he said stiffly.
“Which is arguably a bad one. Love doesn’t change that. I have a hard time suspending my disbelief.”
January assumes that Gus must obviously hold her writing and her worldview in contempt – after all, he once described her as a ‘fairy princess’ and commented of her writing “Let me guess. Everyone lives happily ever after. Again.” And yet… it’s not quite as simple as that. It becomes clear fairly early on that whatever he might think of January’s worldview, he has nothing but respect for her writing, and while she is antagonistic towards him, it’s pretty clear to everyone but January that he rather likes her. Here they are, challenging each other to write in each other’s genres.
“I’m in,” I said.
His eyes bored into me, that evil smile climbing the corner of his top lip. “You sure? This could be truly humiliating.”
An involuntary laugh sprang out of me. “Oh, I’m counting on it,” I said. “But I’ll make it a little easier on you. I’ll throw in a rom-com crash course.”
“Fine,” Gus said. “Then I’ll take you through my research process. I’ll help you lean into your latent nihilism, and you’ll teach me how to sing like no one’s listening, dance like no one’s watching, and love like I’ve never been hurt before.”
While their early conversations are pretty adversarial, their banter as they begin to enjoy each other’s company is absolutely fantastic – these are two very clever people who have made an art of coming up with magnificent turns of phrase, and it shows. There is a fair bit of darkness in the background to the story — Gus comes by his nihilism honestly — but any time January and Gus are in the same room they just spark off each other and it is a total delight. You can tell that they are having so much fun when they argue – did I mention that I laughed a LOT reading this book? There are running jokes about murder spots (Gus does keep on taking January on long drives to seedy locations for their research trips) and comparisons of the worst reviews they’ve received, and a lot of this book feels like one of those late night conversations you have with old friends, where you talk about everything and anything and it never stops being interesting.
And once they get started on their writing challenge, they set up their desks at their windows facing each other, and communicate by placard:
Both windows were open. We could’ve talked but we would have had to scream.
Instead, Gus smiled and picked up the highlighter and notebook beside him. He scribbled on it for a second, then held the notebook up so I could read it:
LIFE IS MEANINGLESS, JANUARY. GAZE INTO THE ABYSS.
I suppressed a laugh, then fished a Sharpie out of my backpack, dragged my own notebook toward me, and flipped to a blank page. In large, square letters, I wrote:
THIS REMINDS ME OF THAT TAYLOR SWIFT VIDEO.
I love this so much. There is just something about a hero and heroine communicating by letter or post-it note or placard that always makes me happy. They do this on and off throughout the book and it is ADORABLE.
The research trips are also great fun. Gus takes January to one depressing interview with a cult survivor after another, and we see the importance in his work of listening, of bearing witness, of trying to understand why people do the things they do – or, as he puts it, ‘why people stay’. This turns out to have more than one set of meanings in Gus’s context. Meanwhile, January gleefully takes Gus to a line dancing class, to Meg Ryan night at the drive through cinema, and to a carnival, where she tries to convince him that they need a montage, the ‘promise-of-the-premise portion of the novel, when your readers are grinning ear to ear’, and they start making up stories about the people around them.
“The woman working the machine,” he said in my ear. “Maybe she’d make a mistake and watch someone get hurt because of it. This job was probably her last chance, the only place that would hire her after she made an even bigger mistake. In a factory, maybe. Or she broke the law to protect someone she cared about. Some kind of almost innocent mistake that could lead to less innocent ones.”
I spun to face him. “Or maybe she’d get a chance to be a hero. This job was her last chance, but she loves it and is good at it. She gets to travel, and even if she mostly only sees parking lots, she gets to meet people. And she’s a people person. The mistake isn’t hers – the machinery malfunctions – but she makes a snap decision and saves a girl’s life…”
This is perhaps the most delicious part of the book – they continue back and forth like this for the whole evening, with January spinning unlikely friendships and hopeful endings, and Gus relentlessly turning everyone into cult members and ruining their lives. (I should note a trigger warning in this scene: one of the many tragedies Gus invents for a passer-by here is a miscarriage, and this may be upsetting for some readers. He also invents a lot of brainwashing and murder, but I’m guessing those are rather rarer as triggers.)
Beach Read straddles the line between women’s fiction and romantic comedy, in that while the romance is central, the heroine’s journey to find out the truth of her parents’ relationship (and her father’s relationship with the Other Woman) and her quest to restart her writing career are also central to the story. The story is also told entirely from January’s point of view, so it’s a story about her more than a story about them – while Gus has a fairly complicated emotional arc, he is secretive and self-protective by nature, so we only see it in glimpses and glimmers and it’s easy to understand why January spends so much time not being sure how he really feels about her. One thing that amused me later on in the book was January musing about how when she is writing or reading romance she gets so annoyed when the hero and heroine won’t communicate but she’s still not going to have That Conversation with Gus because it would be so mortifying….
Beach Read also has some opinions about sexism in how women’s writing is discussed, marketed and read.
“Southern Comfort sounds pretty sexy,” he said. “You have a thing for Southern boys? No teeth and overalls really rev your engine?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m led to believe you’ve never been to the South and possibly couldn’t locate ‘south’ on a compass. Besides, why does everyone try to make women’s writing semi-autobiographical? Do people generally assume your lonely, white, male—“
“Coldly horny,” Gus inserted.
“—coldly horny protagonists are you?”
He nodded thoughtfully, his dark eyes intent on me. “Good question. Do you assume I’m coldly horny?”
But the book also takes the time to explore why Gus writes the things he does, too, and while January’s writerly heart will always be with romances and happy endings, you can see her fascination with exploring darker and more twisted storylines, and the ways in which she uses her writing to explore her own feelings about her family.
As romances go, this one is a very slow burn. There are so many moments of almost-but-not-quite, and these are almost hotter than the deed itself
It was crazy that I remembered that night in college so vividly that I knew he’d touched me just like this. That first touch when we met on the dance floor, featherlight and melting-point hot, careful, intentional.
I realised I was holding my breath, and when I forced myself to breathe, the rise and fall of my chest was ridiculous, the stuff of Regency erotica.
How was he doing this to me? Again?
After the night we’d had tonight, this feeling, this hunger, in me shouldn’t have been possible. After the year I’d had, I hadn’t thought it was anymore.
“I lied,” he whispered against my ear. “I have read your books.”
His hands tightened on my waist and he spun me away from the car, opened the door, and got in, leaving me gasping at the sudden cold of the parking lot.
OMG HE HAS READ HER BOOKS!
AND HE LIKES THEM!!!!
I may have gotten a little bit invested here.
Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it doesn’t require either Gus or January to change. Gus isn’t wrong to be a cynic and January isn’t wrong to be a romantic – they are both fine as they are, even if they do both benefit from writing in each other’s genre. (Mind you, Gus’s happy ending made me laugh so hard my husband came to see what was wrong, but I’ll leave that for you to find out). January has already learned that being a full-time romantic optimist is unsustainable; but Gus’s nihilistic approach to life isn’t precisely filling him with joy either. They give each other balance, and, once they figure out how not to strangle themselves in their own insecurities (if I have a reservation about this book it is that I suspect there are too many neurotic people in this relationship), they are good for each other – they love and appreciate their differences. This is the opposite of an instalove plot – you can see that the foundation of this relationship is the kind of firm friendship where two people are absolutely comfortable with each other and care about each other and just enjoy being in each other’s company, and did I mention I love it?
Also, it contains one of the best vindications of the romance genre that I’ve read in quite some time.
“When you love someone…. you want to make this world look different for them. To give all the ugly stuff meaning, and amplify the good. That’s what you do. For your readers. For me. You make beautiful things, because you love the world, and maybe the world doesn’t always look how it does in your books, but… I think putting them out there, that changes the world a little bit. And the world can’t afford to lose that.”
In conclusion, I love this book. It does take you down into the darkness at times, but it leads you out again, and shows you the path so that you will be able to find it next time. It is sweet and sharp and clever and extremely funny and it left me with a happy sigh and a smile on my face.
This is a definite A, verging on Squee, from me.
PS – Hey, if Gus is writing literary fiction about cults, does that make them cult novels?
OK, I’ll see myself out now…