A Love Story With A Difference
by Ananya Sarkar
(Kolkatta, West Bengal, India)
Beach Read, Emily Henry’s debut adult novel is the perfect combination of romance, humor, and poignancy, told with a rare depth and insight. The story primarily revolves around January Andrews, a 29-year-old writer who has romance novels published to her credit and sees the world through rose-tinted glasses, until recently when she stumbled upon her father’s secret life after his death. She comes across Augustus Everett, commonly known as Gus, who was her college senior and is the serious literary type who believes that true love is a fairy tale. Although they knew each other previously, the novel begins at a time when they become next-door neighbors.
As they keep bumping into each other at odd instances, the tension grows as does their chemistry. They have an aversion for each other’s genres yet there is something that they find mystifying about the other person. And there is common ground in their situations. Both are broke at the time the novel begins, recovering from emotional turmoil, and need to write a book before summer ends.
In a strange twist, Henry makes the characters strike up a remarkable deal in which they bet to swap genres and see who gets published first. The loser is required to promote the winner’s book in all ways possible, such as writing an endorsement for the cover, opting for it when guest judging for book clubs and recommending it in interviews. The bet is as unique as it is preposterous, but does a great job at raising the reader’s interest by several notches. Each of the writers also agrees to “teach” the other their own genre during the weekends – January doling out a rom-com crash course and Gus inducting the dark and disillusioning aspects of life. The entire idea is a creative and engaging one, and Henry deserves credit in this respect. She saves it from being a conventional love story that is boringly predictable.
Also, the novel is not only about January and Gus’ relationship. It delves insightfully into parenting, troubled childhood, trauma and unresolved issues that resurface and seek new outlets in adulthood. Again, the strength of female friendship is brought to the fore through January’s intermittent interaction with Shadi and also when the latter quickly comes to her friend’s aid when she crumbles. The parallel love plot of Shadi also lends interest, though we learn about it from a distance.
The style is lucid and conversational, and the first-person narrator January sounds as if she is confiding in us as a trusted friend. The candid way in which she expresses her insecurities and walks us through her actions and the events happening around her establish warmth and understanding between her and the reader. We can relate to her awkwardness, pain and loss, and the difficulty she has in gearing herself to the present. Also, the flashbacks that she experiences from time to time help us to learn about her background story.
The author has an eye for vivid sensory detail, which adds to the richness of the book. For example, January observes Gus on the deck by the lake: “He stayed out there like that until the sun had gone down and night cloaked everything in rich blues, the fireflies coming to life around him, a million tiny night-lights switched on by a cosmic hand.” Also, nuggets of thought and philosophy are often presented in hauntingly beautiful lines. January analyzes after opening up about her father: “Bad things don’t dig down through your life until the pit’s so deep that nothing good will ever be big enough to make you happy again. No matter how much shit, there will always be wildflowers.”
There are passionate, dramatic moments (making out in the car, slow dance in the rain) as well as sweet instances that endure (Gus uttering “Tomorrow” instead of “good night” when parting from January which becomes their nightly ritual, communication through hand-written notes by the window and the couple watching one movie after another and talking about them throughout one night).
But what keeps the book entertaining is the sprinkling of humor here and there. For example, when January runs into Gus at the bookstore she confesses: “I did what any reasonable adult woman would do when confronted with her college rival turned next-door neighbor. I dove behind the nearest bookshelf.” At another point, she compares Gus to an Uber driver and tells him that she would give him six stars for his ride. Again, when she feels alone and cries in her misery by the lake, a seagull’s droppings comically land on her head, which makes her halt abruptly.
Henry takes her time to build the suspense and mental dilemma, showing the characters’ journey to be a winding path rather than a straight-forward dart to happiness. The concept of permanence and “happily ever after” is done away with, its place taken by a strand of “happy-for-nows” strung together.
The book is sparing in its cast of characters, with the persons related to Pete’s book club featuring, apart from the Gus and January. This could have been because the setting is in a small town near Lake Michigan and the focus is on the development of the relationship between the central characters. Nevertheless, ushering certain other characters could have added a motley presence. Also, as a reader it is natural to want to be involved from the beginning. But as January and Gus knew each other from beforehand, though at a distance, prior to the opening page, we feel precluded from the entirety of the story.
But overall, Beach Read is an endearing book that makes you smile and laugh, sigh and palpitate, effusing a vast and deep “happy-for-now”.***