Review: Beach Read, by Emily Henry
Oh, boy, I do not even know where to begin with this book. It's been shelved as a romance, but it's actually much more, and explores a lot of different things - how different people react to grief differently, relationships with different types of fathers, abandonment issues, the gendered and often unfair ways we categorize and dismiss certain types of stories, and an honest, oftentimes bittersweet exploration of an adult relationship built in the aftermath of a previous one.
The basic premise of the novel is this: January, a successful romance writer, has writer's block, and only has 3 months to produce a new manuscript. Gus, her neighbor, is her old college nemesis, has written two 'serious and important' novels, and also has writer's block. They meet in this tiny Michigan town, since they have neighboring beach houses; they antagonize each other and banter; and then eventually agree to a bet - they will each write a novel in the other's genre, and whoever has the least successful manuscript has to plug the winner's. It's every trope you can think of, and oh my god is this book good.
It was a lovely, bittersweet, oftentimes very painful read - and the thread of romance written throughout the book did such a lovely, lovely job of tying everything together, and giving something sweet and hopeful to hold onto even when the narrator, January, is dealing with the overwhelming grief of both losing her father and finding out at her father's funeral that he was living a double life. The way Emily Henry juxtaposes Gus's abandonment and commitment issues with January's idealized version of love, and her oftentimes simplistic view of relationships, works so well and tugs on every single available heart string. And it was also just one of the most perfect examples of a slow-burn romance I have ever read - the way their sexual chemistry and the tension builds up to some truly electric sex scenes; the fiery, leaping-off-the-page bantering and zingers; and, of course, the lovely, romantic hopefulness of two people missing their first chance and finding each other again, and building something sweet and vulnerable and cherished together while fitting together the pieces of themselves that were broken in their time apart. My God, my heart hurts just thinking of it.
I also loved the way Henry approached January's relationship with her father. She never sugarcoats the very difficult process of grieving your father, and only learning after his death that he wasn't the man you thought and can't have the fight with him you need to have to clear the air anymore. This is the author's first novel for adults, and the maturity of her writing - both in the way she wrote Gus and January's relationship, and the way she wrote January's relationship with her father - shines through loud and clear. The culminating moment of the novel is when January finds a cache of her father's letters to her, and learns to just sit with the grief and accept that she won't ever have the chance to reconcile these two parts of him together; she just has to accept the fact that her father was human, he made mistakes, he wasn't perfect, but he was still her dad and she'll always love the man she knew anyway. Reader, I wept. Copiously. And then I immediately called my dad to tell him how much I loved him, but I was crying really hard and I think I freaked him out (sorry, Dad). That's another thing Henry did brilliantly throughout this book - her writing felt so vivid and immediate and real, you had no problem identifying yourself with the feelings of her narrator. I felt January's grief for her dad down to my bones and it felt so big, so overwhelming, I completely understood why it took the entire novel for January to build up to being able to even begin coping with it.
The rivalry between Gus and January, and the way January sticks up for her fiction, was also really funny and well-handled - a much necessary bit of comedic relief in a book that could have been really heavy, but the pacing and the plotting was always deftly managed so you were never left with too much sadness or too much laughter either. How January talks about 'fiction' vs 'women's fiction' had me shouting "YEAH! FUCK PUBLISHING!" really loudly at midnight while I was reading this book.
I really don't have enough words to express how wonderful this book is. I think it's highly likely that it will end up in my Top 10 list of 2020, so I recommend that everyone reads it. It's a romance that does so much more than just a love story, and everything is done so well and so well-written and so achingly, heartbreakingly beautiful, I just want to buy a million copies and start handing it off to random people I see in the street.
Definitely read this book. It's so good.