It’s been a while since a romance novel made me burst out cackling on the second page, but Emily Henry has done it: Her heroine Nora (named for Ephron, of course) Stephens introduces herself by way of a Hallmark movie formula—basically, You know how every male lead in one of these movies has an ice queen girlfriend barking into the phone from her Peloton for him to come back to the city and leave behind idyllic country life? That’s me, I’m the Peloton bitch.
It’s an ambitious move, centering her latest contemporary romance on the kind of person that Hallmark and Lifetime (and, increasingly, Netflix) have long taught us is the antihero. But in doing so, Henry has outdone even herself by presenting a delightfully prickly enemies-to-lovers romance that brutally takes apart the Hallmark Happily Ever After and sensitively revises it into something more realistic yet still swoon-worthy.
Nora is a very particular breed of New Yorker, a cutthroat literary agent whose star client Dusty Fielding happens to write the kind of small-town romance that is her personal kryptonite. And while she’s such a finely-honed archetype of HBIC, I still felt incredible solidarity for her—as someone who once launched into a screaming diatribe on behalf of Idina Menzel’s character in Disney’s Enchanted (whose only sin was not being doe-eyed Amy Adams and therefore Patrick Dempsey’s polar-opposite love interest) because my college boyfriend had also deemed me the anti-soulmate of his personal movie.
It’s never fun to be the not-enough girlfriend, and Nora has had it happen four times. It’s completely understandable that this career badass would be terrified whenever a new beau goes on a work trip to some idyllic place that’s not New York City—and why it’s so difficult for her to leave the Big Apple for even a weekend trip.
The only person Nora would even consider departing the city for—and only during publishing’s slow season in August—is her younger sister Libby, who’s long-established in her own HEA with a doting husband, two rambunctious girls, and a third kiddo on the way. Libby convinces Nora to join her in visiting dreamy Sunshine Falls, which happens to be the setting for Dusty’s bestsellers. Only, it seems as if Dusty has taken some creative liberties with the town…and there’s another black-clad New Yorker who sticks out as sorely as Nora.
Surly book editor Charlie Lastra, thorn in Nora’s side since a mutual bad first impression years ago, is inexplicably summering in this random North Carolina town as well. And when they wind up in an unexpected Dusty collaboration, which conflicts with Libby’s pre-baby bucket list, Nora finds herself pulled between the most important person in her life—and someone who has the potential to become a close second.
This is Henry’s third romance to take place over a summer (like last year’s People We Meet on Vacation) and second to exist in the Venn diagram of publishing folks’ seasonal wind-down (after her 2020 debut Beach Read). But despite any surface-level similarities to the latter’s premise, in which romance author January Andrews and literary wunderkind Augustus Everett challenge each other to switch writing genres, Book Lovers might as well exist in a different section of the proverbial bookstore.
Beach Read played into that rom-com Pavlovian delight that is watching opposites attract, but for so many of us that’s pretty unlikely. Even Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, with its slightly kinky enemies-to-lovers publishing dynamic that makes it a close comp to this, emphasizes the lovers’ every difference from height to attire to sunshine/grump personas. Book Lovers reassures readers that it’s OK to fall for someone who’s not just similar to you but is basically the male version of you down to every ruthlessly ambitious bone and unapologetic adoration for metropolitan life—that is, every “worst” aspect of you that compels others to leave.
Yet the novel also continues a growing trend in contemporary romance that I hope is here to stay, wherein the love affair isn’t the only heartstring being tugged. For most of the novel, in fact, Nora is more emotionally invested in the fact that she and Libby have grown apart, with her main motivation being to bridge that distance and fix whatever it is that saddens or panics her baby sister—despite the “baby” expecting her third child. The friction between these opposites drives the plot, never pitting one life path against a drastically different one but instead exploring the tension of diverging wants.
Nora’s run-ins with Charlie are at first incidental, though despite their charmless first meeting, they seem to have readily established the romance trope of epistolary courting—here, with self-published Bigfoot erotica via work email. Moments like this briefly strain credulity only because of how stridently Nora opposes the barest glimmer of a made-for-TV-movie formula. Yet that seems to be Henry’s point—that the old adage about the truth being stranger than fiction applies even (or especially) to love stories.
I was at first skeptical of setting another novel in the publishing world, to the point where I don’t know how I would have reacted to a January/Augustus Easter egg, but about two-thirds through, it clicked: Beach Read subverts genre snobbery by way of the derision directed at anything written by women, but Book Lovers takes a red pen to supposedly universal romance tropes—again, not wholly excising, but figuring out how they can actually jibe with reality.
The trickiest part of romance is sticking the landing. If readers expect an HEA but your whole book is predicated on life not always ending on a happy note, how do you reconcile the two? There’s a part of me that wonders, if Book Lovers had been written to lean more into the literary fiction side of things, if it might have turned out differently. That said, Henry pulls off an ending that both fulfills the genre tropes while still surprising this teary-eyed reader.
Book Loversis available now from Berkley Books.
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, NPR Books, Den of Geek, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.