I mean, when you’re going to write a book about books and book people, you’re asking for trouble. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the majority of book people aren’t that discerning, and writing a book about book people is an obvious sell. Well, I’m a book person, and I approached Book Lovers by Emily Henry with some reservations. I mean, it wasn’t on my gigantic TBR. But it’s new, I thought. The cover looks light, beach-read-y, like a regular, ol’ romance. But it’s on the best-sellers shelf. And the lady at Malaprop’s recommends it. I’m not done with like three other books. You’re on vacation. Yes, true. Maybe I could use a painless read as a break from the bears (good bears) that I am in the middle of.
It went very much like the reading of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, a couple summers ago. But then it also went a lot like me reading Song of Achilles while at a residency last fall. Let’s assume you do not remember everything I said in both those reviews. Song of Achilles was a book I picked up at a local bookstore while out of town, somewhat impulsively. I could not put the darn thing down and I devoured it. I knew it was not the highest-minded literature I had ever read, but it was so engaging and entertaining. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a book about book lovers and all things bookish. I read it on a recommend but didn’t end up liking it. I wasn’t mad I had read it, it just really didn’t pan out and I felt that part of the reason was because Fikry was all book-snob but his references and recommendations didn’t say “book snob” to me. In other words, it was preaching to the choir but the choir was like, “Can you give me a scriptural reference for that, please?” As for Book Lovers, it was entertaining and engaging and once again, I couldn’t put it down and basically devoured it. However, it fell short by 1) being of maybe not the highest caliber of writing and 2) trying so hard to sell me on this editing world when FOR PITY’S SAKE THERE WERE A NUMBER OF SPELLING AND GRAMMATICAL ERRORS! Yes, Book Lovers is meant to hook book lovers with its taking place in the New York editing world, complete with authors and book stores galore, but this brings with it so many expectations. And on most of that, it didn’t work for me. It reminded me of movies where they talk about great art or a beautiful person or something, and they make such a big deal about it, but then the viewer never gets to see the beautiful person or the great art. Except in this instance, Henry does let you see glimpses of the writing and of the plot of the amazing, fictitious books in question, but you remain, or I remained, unimpressed. The book being edited and drooled over by the agent/editor just sounded awful. The book that won several people fame? Also sounded awful. Enough about that.
Book Lovers is about Nora, who can’t get her happy ending because she is the up-tight, witchy, ambitious, physically fit woman who is the love interest that gets left behind by Prince Charmings after they meet the smalltown sweetheart they were destined to fall in love with and marry. She knows the trope because it’s her life and also because she agents these stories. Which she does very well. Then one day, out of the blue, her kid-sister (Libby) whom Nora raised after their mother’s untimely death, begs Nora to go to the town where Libby’s favorite novel takes place and, against all her instincts, Nora goes with her—for a month. Maybe Nora can find the smalltown sweetheart who will turn her into the heroine of her own storybook. At least, Libby seems to hope so.
Here are some other things to say: the banter was great. Unrealistic? Sure, but great. Funny. High-brow enough. Quick. Witty. Pretty perfect. Which leads me to: the sizzle between the romantic leads was pretty amazing. If the two leads in a romantic movie ever conveyed the chemistry which Henry puts into this pair, it would be the blockbuster of the year. Which also reminds me that the supporting characters are amazingly adorable, spunky, heart-warming. Book Lovers is meant to be some sort of meta-romance/villian’s perspective novel and it hits some of these necessary staples right on the head. I mean, Nora’s sister is a superb sidekick/best friend. The brother-in-law? Cute as a button. The townspeople? A convincing chorus of interesting characters.
But let’s talk about that town. Little factoid: I read this book while in the place it takes place and I didn’t even mean to. This happened to me a couple years ago with Where the Crawdads Sing (soon to be a movie, by the way). I am on a mini-vaca right this moment in Asheville and that is, indeed, where this novel mostly takes place (the runner-up being New York City). Technically, it’s a fake, small town called Sunshine Falls just outside Asheville, but heck, I’m just outside Asheville too. In a tiny house on a farm. So, being from North Carolina (for my whole adult life) and being right where this book is supposed to be happening, I don’t even accept it. There are things about it Henry got right. The pot smoking. And… I can’t really think what else. Even the name of the town is not like it belongs in NC and certainly not around here. Falls? sure. Sunshine? Nope. There’s sunshine here, but nothing named after it. That’s Florida. I had a hard time with the foliage and landscape Henry described, the town itself, how limited the girls were to the town when Asheville (a city with just about everything) was right around the corner, the way people spoke and thought about things, etc. And when part of the plot is that the writer hadn’t even been to Sunshine Falls before she wrote the book… a little too ironic, I thought.
And one more thing. It’s so obvious. I know rom-com novels aren’t supposed to surprise you too much, but you know exactly what’s going to happen from the first chapter and you see the romantic interest from first sighting even though he’s supposed to be hidden in plain sight. We’re book lovers, remember? We’ve been here before. There are some surprises, I guess, but even then you know that there IS a surprise and it’s not what Nora thinks it is, if you know what I mean. There are twists and turns, but Nora’s the only one surprised by them. (Which also makes me want to mention, this is one of those stories where when you think too hard about after the book, you might get depressed.)
I lied. One more thing. Let’s end on a high note. I actually laughed out loud a few times while reading this. There were plenty of sudden moments of humor, as well as sudden moments of insight. It’s actually a really interesting book when seen through the lens of healing or recovery. Nora has some issues, to be sure, and so does every other character in the book, and we walk with many of them as the characters unpack, share, confess, hold hands, and walk through the process to its end. Maybe the book tries a little too hard to model healing, but I was buying it. I even had tears well up in my eyes a couple times.
Conclusion? If you want a few books for this summer’s beach time and you love books and/or the literary world, then Book Lovers is one you should pick up (unless you are one of those bazillion people who have already read it and loved it). Don’t do it because you think it’s going to be Doerr-level writing or Austen-level tight plotting or even really all that believable. Do it because it’s going to be a fun read. Make you laugh. Get your blood pumping. Keep you up late. Stay glued to your side until you’re done, which is definitely top priority for many book lovers.
BONUS: Some recommendations before I get to the few quotes. There is a list of “Nora and Libby’s” book recommendations at the end of the novel, which I thought was a fun touch. See the novel if you want those. (I added most of them to the Best Books List for Romance here on The Starving Artist.) But for funsies, I also decided to make a list of books for book lovers. As always, this list is basically a Frankenstein of several other lists that other people/publications made. It would be ideal as a book club, obviously. And then below that, I made a list of movies for book lovers. Also ideal to sneak movies into that book club. I like when book clubs have unexpected twists.
- Matilda, Roald Dahl ***
- The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern
- Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan
- Book Love, Debbie Tung
- Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell
- My Ideal Bookshelf, Thessaly LaForce
- The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby
- The School Story, Andrew Clements
- A People’s History of the American Public Library, Wayne Wiegand
- Upstairs at the Strand, Jessica Strand
- Dear Fahrenheit 451, Annie Spence
- The Lost Book of the Grail, Charlie Lovett
- When Books Went to War, Molly Guptill Manning
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer
- Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi
- The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, Paula Huntley
- The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler
- The Book of Speculation, Erika Swyler
- The Bookseller of Kabul, Asne Seierstad
- Wild, Cheryl Strayed
- The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
- The Little Paris Bookshop, Nina George
- If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino *
- The Reader, Bernhard Schlink
- The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
- Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour
- The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin
- The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, Katarina Bivald
- Inkheart, Cornelia Funke
- Bibliophile, Jane Mount
- The Bookshop
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
- 84 Charing Cross Road
- Funny Face
- Notting Hill ***
- The Jane Austen Book Club
- The Fast Company (trilogy)
- Wonder Boys
- Mrs. Parker and the Viscious Circle
- Midnight in Paris
- Miss Potter *
- The Hours
- Ruby Sparks ***
- Dead Poets Society
- Moonrise Kingdom
- The Book Thief
- They Came Together
- You’ve Got Mail
- Tolkien *
- The Man Who Invented Christmas *
- Bright Star
- Matilda *
- Secret Window
“That’s the thing about women. There’s no good way to be one. Wear your emotions on your sleeve and you’re hysterical. Keep them tucked away where your boyfriend doesn’t have to ten to them and you’re a heartless bitch” (p6).
“This place looks like a Cracker Barrel had a baby with a honky-tonk, and now that baby is a teenager who doesn’t shower enough and chews on his sweatshirt sleeves” (p70).
“I can be one of the guys, as long as the guys in question have a favorite song from Les Mis. Otherwise I’m hopeless” (p79).
“’Human beings are a mysterious species, Nora. I once watched a bike courier get hit by a car, get up, and scream I become God at the top of his lungs before riding off in the opposite direction” (p169).
“Somehow, it never occurred to me that this was an option: that two people, in the same hug, could both be allowed to fall apart. That maybe it’s neither of our jobs to keep a steel spine” (p337).