'Beach Read' lived up to its title. It's exactly the kind of book that I want to read on holiday.
It made me laugh, cry, think, grin at its impudence, cheer for the good bits and fast-forward through the sex bits. Most of all, it made me happy.
A clever structure
I picked up 'Beach Read' after reading Deborah Kehoe's review which positioned the book as much more than just another romance. She was absolutely right. 'Beach Read' is one of those rare books that manages to be accessible and engaging while also being clever and insightful.
Think of 'Beach Read' as having a double helix structure, like DNA.
One helix is a straight RomCom about two writers, January, a writer of 'women's fiction' and Gus, a Lit Fic writer. both struggling to write their next novel, who discover that they are neighbours for the summer and overcome some initial hostility to dance all the usual romance steps.
The other helix is about the process of writing, about overcoming writer's block and about challenging the artificial genre boundaries imposed by publishing houses to make books easier to market. Each helix would be fin on its own but together they make something much more powerful and original.
The RomCom helix: like a romance only with real people
I'm not normally a fan of romance but this romance I loved. I loved how knowing and yet how believable this book was. The structure is self-referentially that of a romance novel, from Meet Cute to Happy Ever After with all the steps in between labelled as we go along.
Yet it's neither groan-worthily glub nor mechanically formulaic because the characters KNOW the framework that they're in and any romance that occurs is created by a consensual collaboration. The characters aren't plot-devices, they have histories and personalities and problems that determine how they behave within this romantic construct. The story is backlit by a playful examination of the process of writing a novel and the nature of the genres that are imposed on them, which is used to reveal more about the characters themselves.
Together, these things make for a novel that's like a romance but with real people who aren't blinded or glamoured by the magic of romance but instead are able to see themselves and each other more clearly.
The Writing Helix: challenging genres and throwing words like knives.
I am a fan of clever trope-twisting and witty analysis and 'Beach Read' delivers both. Take this excerpt from a discussion between Gus, the male lit-fic writer and January the female romance writer. January says that her books aren't shelved as Romance but as Women's Fiction. Gus says:
'I don't understand why there'd need to be a full genre that's just books for women.'
'Yeh, well you're not the only one who doesn't understand it.' I said. 'I know how to tell a story, Gus and I know how to string a sentence together. If you swapped out all my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what you'd get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone but somehow, being a woman who writes about women, I've eliminated half the world's population from my potential readers and you know what? I feel ashamed of that. I feel pissed that people like you will assume my books couldn't possibly be worth your time while, meanswhile, you could shart on live TV and the New York Times would praise your bold display of humanity.'
Given that I wouldn't have picked up this book if I hadn't been told that it was more than a romance, this made me grin sheepishly.
Writing and what it means to be a writer is at the heart of the book which means that what these two say to each other and write to each other are important. For writers, words have sharp edges. I thought one of the joys of this book was the way the two writers traded pen sketches. It displayed how their imaginations worked and revealed the kind of judgements that they make, Here's an example where Gus, having asked January what 'baby January' was like and having been told, 'She was a lot' spontaneously spins this:
'Let me guess. Loud. Precocious. Room full of books organised in a way that only you understood. Close with your family and a couple of tight-knit friends, all of who you probably still talk to regularly, but casual friends with anyone else with a pulse. A secret over-achiever who had to be the best at something, even if no one else knew. Oh and prone to juggling or tap dancing for attention in any crowd.'
Here's January's response:
'Wow,' I said, a little stunned. 'You both nailed and roasted me.'
I could hear the joy and the danger in that Gus' kind of statement, where things come out of your mouth unedited, partly playful, partly true, partly catching you by surprise even as you hear yourself say them. It sparkles. Then January's response grounded it, without rebutting it, making it clear that words have edges and need to be thrown with care.
I also like how Emily Henry plays with the form while still delivering something satisfying. You know how there's likely to be a chapter in a romance book where the girl dreams of the boy or vis versa and suddenly understands the depth of their attraction? Well, this book has that chapter. The fun thing is that it's called 'The Dream' and it's one sentence long.
'I dreamed about Gus Everett and woke up needing a shower.'
That made me laugh.
The disappointing sex scene
The only thing that disappointed me in 'Beach Read' was the sex. I knew that had to be sex, I just wanted the sex to be as real as the people having it.
Up until the sex scene, the book had sidestepped clichés and toyed with tropes with skill and a little humour, keeping the focus on making January and Gus real. Yet the sex scenes didn't seem real at all. They lacked the focus of previous scenes. They were a muddle of sanitised descriptions of who does what to whom, hyperbolic descriptions of how good it all felt, and a few muttered attempts at humour. It was a long scene, cutting across a chapter break (why do that?) yet all I got was euphemisms that were so soft-focus that the sex wasn't really described. I was also supposed to accept that two people, having sex with each other for the first time managed a flawless choreography with no communication and rapidly achieved a level of mutual satisfaction that was explosive, exhausting.
My main problem with the scene was that it was so generic. It was a generic description of two beautiful, highly aroused people having frantic but deeply satisfying sex. Nothing in the scene links specifically to the characters in the book. You could drop this scene into another novel and only have to edit the names.
Earlier in the book, the two writers discuss how you make things real by paying attention to the small details that matter to people: how they dress, what they're anxious about, what unconscious ticks they have and so on. None of that thinking translated into the scene. January had neither anxiety or curiosity. There was no uncertainty, no hesitation, no real interaction beyond two bodies getting off in perfect soft-focus harmony.
This was very disappointing. Write a real sex scene for the real people in the book or write, 'the sex was great' and leave it at that but don't drop in a soft porn photomontage that would work well if you never saw the participants faces.
Try the audiobook
I listened to the audiobook version of 'Beach Read' and I recommend it. Julia Whelan did a great job on the narration.