8 New Romance Novels to Read This Summer – The New York Times

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What do these romance novels — featuring ghosts, Greek goddesses, a cardiologist, a fisherman, an astronaut and a Tang dynasty courtesan — have in common?

Millie von Platen

Is there any real dating in romance novels anymore? Or is it all fake?

This is not the first time a trend has reached maximum genre saturation. Think 1990s paranormal (vampires and werewolves and fays, oh my!), and the feverish rise and fall of Goths in the 1970s, to name two.

Fake dating is suddenly everywhere you look. Like all romance trends, what’s most interesting is seeing the ways authors finesse the raw material to create distinct emotional effects. It’s like an episode of “Chopped”: Everyone has the same basket of ingredients, but how they work with them makes all the difference.

For romantic comedy, we have Nisha Sharma’s buoyant DATING DR. DIL (Avon, 364 pp., paper, $12.79), a retelling of “The Taming of the Shrew” by way of Bollywood musicals and second-generation immigrant families. Dr. Prem Verma is a cardiologist who believes love is detrimental to public and personal health; Kareena Mann is a lawyer determined to find a love match like the one her parents had, instead of the lackluster arranged marriages her grandmother thinks she should settle for.

Both our leads need money, Prem for his new clinic and Kareena to save her late mother’s house. A fake engagement is the quickest way to secure funds from their families — and Prem’s investors — but only if Kareena gives up her hopes of finding someone who loves her the way she feels she deserves.

These two spend so much page time arguing about whether a fake relationship is a good idea that, to my delight, they end up just skipping the fake part. There’s a lot in this novel: best friends, demanding siblings, difficult parents, aunties on the rampage. If you’re looking for that ensemble family feel in a romance, I’d rate this four Shah Rukh Khans out of five.

If, on the other hand, you want to see fake relationships used to work through inner personal hangups, I can recommend Kosoko Jackson’s I’M SO (NOT) OVER YOU (Berkley, 368 pp., paper, $16).

Kian Andrews is a journalism graduate in Boston, desperate for work and recently dumped by the too-handsome scion of a Southern brewing family. Hudson Rivers has a fraught relationship with his parents — but they did love Kian, his ex. So Hudson makes Kian an offer: Pretend they didn’t break up and come as his date to a cousin’s high-profile wedding, and he’ll arrange a meeting with a family friend who runs the news site Kian is desperate to write for. It’s a straightforward exchange of favors, which leads to no emotional or social complications whatsoev — ha-ha, no, of course it’s a disaster.

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Kian is a whirlpool of self-doubt and anxiety. The constant churn of trying to understand his own spiraling thoughts has made him an expert in reading other people’s unspoken communications — a great trait for a journalist but a horrible one for an ex. Especially with someone like Hudson, opaque and surface-perfect, with deep scars he’s desperate to keep hidden. These two push each other’s buttons as if they were born knowing where to poke: Their negative chemistry at the start is incendiary and chaotic.

It’s also irresistible, and it shows why they both find it hard to move on. Kian and Hudson are hot messes and they make terrible decisions — but they make less terrible decisions together, and the parts when they’re in sync shine with a beautiful, blooming sense of wonder. Jackson’s experience in young adult literature shows in this book’s close point of view and its depiction of a character on the brink of something transformative.

Continuing the themes of hot messes: When last we saw Luc (hot mess) and Oliver (painfully organized mess) in Alexis Hall’s “Boyfriend Material,” they had been basking in the euphoria of being fake boyfriends turned real boyfriends. Two years later, they are still at a reasonable level of bliss, but everyone around them seems to be moving onward. Luc’s friends are marrying, becoming parents, establishing stable polycules — you know, doing grown-up things.

So, with his usual complete lack of forethought, Luc asks Oliver to marry him.

Being married to Oliver sounds fine. Planning a wedding with him, on the other hand, might destroy everything.

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HUSBAND MATERIAL (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 422 pp., paper, $15.99) is, above all else, terrifically funny. Not just tonally upbeat in the way of many so-called rom-coms, but text-your-friends, chortle-’til-you-cry funny. One exchange made me laugh so hard and so long I ached for days — my laughter muscles have not had a lot of exercise in the past few years. The jokes shine all the brighter against some deeply painful moments in this story: This is humor as trauma response, romance edition.

In many ways, I was the ideal reader for HOOK, LINE, AND SINKER (Avon, 385 pp., paper, $15.99), Tessa Bailey’s friends-to-lovers story about a crab-boat fisherman and a music-loving film production assistant. I related to Hannah Bellinger’s fear that she’s a supporting cast member in her own life story; I love a capable hero and was intrigued by Fox Thornton’s anxieties about taking on the role of captain.

But this book keeps insisting there are two kinds of people, the male ones and the female ones. Men: big, strong, dumb and horny. Women: small, soft, mysterious and pure. And perhaps I should have realized this boded poorly and bailed out in Chapter 3, where our hero is described as “the maestro of feminine wetness” and a “masculinity maelstrom.” (A malestrom?) Bailey’s reputation is built on being “the Michelangelo of dirty talk,” but I wasn’t expecting her work to sound quite so baroque. To hear a 21st-century woman refer to her anatomy as her “femininity” midthrust is jarring, a throwback to the tortured circumlocutions of bodice-rippers past.

If not for this tendency, Bailey would have made my auto-buy list, alongside Kate Clayborn and Lucy Parker. Her voice is otherwise lively and evocative. But that one repeated sour note threw me out of the story so often that it started to feel actively hostile to me as a queer reader. Especially since Fox’s arc boils down to his being “wedged into a category before he even knew what was happening” — framing we see in plenty of queer and trans stories. Bailey uses the language of sexual marginalization and shame to talk about how hard it is to be a handsome, straight, white, cisgender man with a series of willing partners and access to reliable contraception. A plot point about his mother’s supplying him money for condoms in high school is treated as one origin of his trauma — because having had a lot of safe, consensual sex is something this book thinks has tainted Fox. It’s a stunningly sex-negative attitude for a supposedly steamy romance.

My objection is not that the lead characters themselves are straight and cis, it is that the imagination of this book fails to account not only for L.G.B.T.Q. characters but also for L.G.B.T.Q. readers.

I am not the word police, telling you what’s permissible. I am just here to illuminate the effect of an author’s choice of language. And Bailey’s choices made this reviewer feel, in a word, lonely.

It’s an unfortunately recognizable feeling after the widespread isolation of the past two years. Which might be one reason there’s been a noticeable uptick in romance retellings of the Hades and Persephone myth, with its tension between entrapment and escape. My favorite by far is Rachel Smythe’s LORE OLYMPUS (Del Rey, 384 pp., $26.99), a hit webcomic being adapted for television and reissued in a series of gorgeous, glossy print volumes.

Hades, lord of the underworld and god of riches, makes for a natural stoic billionaire. And Persephone is a ready-made ingénue, a sheltered goddess of spring from a younger generation of immortals. They’re not supposed to meet, and they’re definitely not supposed to be friends, or more than friends. But the more they talk, and as other myths unfold around them — Psyche and Eros, Zeus’ many affairs, Apollo as a chillingly realistic predator — the accuracy of those initial roles begins to blur. We see that even ancient immortals carry scars, and that innocence is not the same as weakness.

Rachel Smythe/Del Rey

If eyes could eat, this book would be a feast. Smythe’s artistic style features bright washes of color and bold, suggestive lines, which make it easy for characters’ forms and faces to shift from hilarious to heartbreaking in the turn of a page. It’s a very young perspective on a very old story — as if “D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths” grew up, got drunk and went dancing at the sparkliest place in town. But don’t let the illustrative style (or Hades’ many adorable cartoon dogs) fool you into thinking this is a children’s book: This is still a Greek myth, and adult themes come standard. Adultery, ambition, jealousy, power games and sexual assault are all at work. It’s paced as a soap opera, all drawn-out tensions and long-simmering secrets, and I, for one, am thrilled to be along for the ride.

Another personal favorite: Jeannie Lin’s Lotus Palace series of mystery romances. In a subgenre that sometimes finds it hard to look away from the blinding sun of 19th-century England, Lin’s historical romances about Tang Dynasty warriors and courtesans, constables and scholars offer romance readers exactly what we all want in a historical: a transportive setting, complex personalities and sweeping, epic emotion. I’m a broken record in saying that Lin’s “The Jade Temptress” is one of the best romances of all time, so I was not about to miss RED BLOSSOM IN SNOW (self-published, 300 pp., paper, $14.99).

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Song Yi is a courtesan: refined, elegant, impeccably trained in seduction and social graces. Her heart is not her own to give away. Li Chen is a magistrate in the capital, a scholar of restraint and virtue — and desperately, hopelessly in love with Song Yi. My god, the exquisite pining! Our leads yearn and burn and despair for their dreams of love, while a murder at the courtesan house draws them into a web of betrayal and death that stretches into the forgotten past.

Every rule and every custom stands between Song Yi and Li Chen, and for most of this book I had no idea how they would escape. But like a magician, a romance author tells you straight out: I am going to make these obstacles disappear. The bird may be tied to its perch, locked in a cage and shrouded, but then — the magician makes a flourish and, impossibly, the bird is free. Lin’s latest has both that masterful control of the stage and a deep vein of melancholy, a perfect enchantment no matter your mood.

Death and a little magic are also found in THE DEAD ROMANTICS (Berkley, 345 pp., paper, $17), as is a ruthless eye for the dark side of the publishing world. Ashley Poston tells an adept story about a romance author’s ghostwriter who also talks to ghosts. Florence Day can’t seem to finish her latest manuscript after a devastating heartbreak — and that is before she has to travel home to help arrange her father’s wake at the family funeral home. And before the ghost of her new, superhot editor, Benji Andor, shows up, insisting he can’t rest until he helps her get over her writer’s block.

It’s “While You Were Sleeping” meets “Six Feet Under,” and I need to yell to everyone about how good it is.

There are books that have writers in them and there are books about writers: This is one of the latter. It’s full of harsh publishing realities and drops more current romance names than I’ve seen in a while (Nora Roberts, but also Christina Lauren, Casey McQuiston, Rebekah Weatherspoon and Courtney Milan). It’s also a book where people can’t truly die until they’ve tied up the loose threads; ghosts linger because their narrative is unfinished, because, in Poston’s world, narrative is life.

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Fiction reveals truth in ways Florence can’t control: She is unable to finish her manuscript because she keeps writing people who feel as despondent as she does; she is also dreading the upcoming release of an ex’s much-hyped book whose main character is based on Florence and her family. Of course, she feels as if the genre of her life story is a vital question for her future. No wonder a hot editor looks especially attractive, even if he is a little bit dead.

Ghost romance is a god-tier subgenre because it lets love conquer death, semi-plausibly — such a tempting challenge for an author, and an irresistible gift for the reader. The result is an antidote for despair, a romance that is frank about the fact that life ends and time marches on but that nevertheless insists: We aren’t a gothic horror novel. We’re a love story. This is a book to make you laugh during the funeral scene and cry when the dance party begins.

Finally, Jen Comfort’s THE ASTRONAUT AND THE STAR (Montlake Romance, 332 pp., paper, $12.95) is about two people whose futures depend on the careful curation of their image. Regina Hayes, an astronaut, is determined to be the first woman to walk on the moon — but NASA thinks she’s too much of a lone wolf. So, to show the necessary team spirit (ugh), she volunteers to train a himbo Hollywood star for a role as an astronaut in an edgy director’s new project.

The actor, Jon Leo, is hoping this new movie will nab him an Oscar and a spot on the A-list, so he can prove he’s more than a pretty face from a cult action comedy. That is, if he doesn’t destroy NASA’s pricey equipment or get murdered by his hot astronaut trainer first.

The grumpy/sunny dynamic is my favorite when the heroine gets to be the grumpy one, and Reggie is grumpier than most. (She’s also bisexual, which makes this a welcome queer romance.) Jon describes her as a comic-book villainess: She’s stern and demanding and a little bit mean, and he thinks it makes her the sexiest woman in the world. Jon’s easygoing persona is both a cover for untreated A.D.H.D. and a protection against rejection — he puts up walls just as much as Reggie does, only with jokes instead of withering scorn. He’s fighting to change, and she is fighting not to: It’s an elegant balance of similarity and difference.

The combination of actor and astronaut shows there’s only a shade of difference between pretending and rehearsing — or training. You don’t just pack your bags and flit off to the moon, you practice moving and working in lowered gravity, in artificial settings that simulate space’s grueling environments.

That’s why fake dating in a romance is never really fake. It’s a sneak peek at the future. Because it’s not just that we are what we pretend to be, as Kurt Vonnegut says. It’s also that by pretending, we’re practicing for what we could become.

Olivia Waite is the Book Review’s romance fiction columnist. She writes queer historical romance, fantasy and critical essays on the genre’s history and future.

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