Book Review: Beach Read

Image from Amazon.com

I have accidentally established a writing residency tradition. Apparently (because this just happened twice and now it’s a thing), I go to a local bookshop when I am in whatever town (well, obviously I would hit up the local bookshops) and I purchase an easy (read: often pop-fiction-y or romantic), engrossing, possibly writer-related book. Then I spend my evenings making space between my daytime screen-brain and my bedtime, reading the book (though it always takes me far less than all the nights—I have brought other books, of course).

With my residency at the Writing Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs last week (I will write about that later), I had a difficult time actually finding a book. That sounds strange, especially since the ones I had on my thoughtlist were extremely popular. But Eureka Springs has ONLY local businesses, absolutely no chains, and unfortunately the two bookstores in town are specialty stores, geared toward naturopathy and spirituality and whatnot. Finally (!) I had the brilliant idea to go to the library (where the residency keeps a card for the Writers Colony) and borrow the book. Perfect! (Except I love owning (used) books and not borrowing them, but I could live through it once.) The library had one copy and it was availabe. I snagged it, thanked yet another super friendly Eurekan, and smirked my way up to the Crescent Hotel swimming pool… for a break, of course.

That is how I read another Emily Henry book, though her books don’t totally fit into the vibes here at The Starving Artist. They are extremely popular and their covers are eye-catching (though I have discovered lately that not only are many of the book covers this same style and color-scheme, but the cover type is spanning genres so it is harder to tell which genre you are even looking at, from the cover. This may be a good thing (especially for reading in public), but it’s also a bit annoying. Right?). I have seen Henry’s three grown-up books in every single bookstore I’ve been in until this residency, with at least one prominently displayed. I reviewed  Book Lovers after my spring 2022 pseudo-residency. Which leads me to another reason I picked it up: Beach Read, like Book Lovers, is about book people. Lovers was about editors (and a book store, plenty of readers, etc.), but this one is about writers (and also has the required bookstore, even a book club).

Image from randompenguinhouse.com

Emily Henry is relatively new on the scene. She wrote YA, publishing from 2016-2019, but then in 2020 she made the fated jump to adult romantic/rom-com with Beach Read. She pumps novels out fast, and by 2022, she has been topping all the right best-selling charts for two years with three rom-com titles and one soon to be released. There isn’t that much publicly known about Henry, as far as I can tell. She lives in Ohio, near Kentucky. She went to Hope College, a small, private, Christian College in Michigan, where she studied creative writing and then did some more schooling in New York. She’s young. She’s pretty. I don’t know if we even know how old she is, actually, but she looks young. Here are her current titles:

  • The Love That Split the World  (YA)
  • A Million Junes (YA)
  • When the Sky Fell on Splendor (YA)
  • Hello Girls (YA, with another author)
  • Beach Read
  • People We Meet on Vacation
  • Book Lovers
  • Happy Place (projected 2023)

Beach Read clearly draws in part from some of Henry’s experiences. It takes place predominantly on the east shore of Michigan, in a small town hours from Chicago, with a little beginning in New York City. The main character is January Andrews, a young but not-that-young-anymore romance writer whose father has recently died, throwing a wrench in her career, her effervescent personality, and her picture-perfect, long-term, romantic partnership with a French doctor who cooks beautifully and looks like a dream. The fall-out also includes losing her city apartment and asking life-defining questions about her dad. January ends up stranded in a beach house she doesn’t want to be in in Michigan with a looming deadline, no book or even idea, probably a level of depression, and some relational issues that make everything except her long-distance best friend complicated for the time. Enter the antagonist-slash-romantic interest. (I’m not spoiling anything, you can see it a mile away.) Her mysterious next door neighbor is also a writer, but he writes literary fiction (pinkies up) and is quite grumpy. And though it’s a big surprise he’s there, January and he already have a past. But whose version of the past is right? And when they set up a challenge to get them both out of writer’s block with writing the other person’s genre (and a number of immersive experiences that hop back and forth between the romantic and the dark), will they find their voices again, or just true love?

So, yeah, I already basically said you can see the ending coming from the very beginning of the book. Beach Read definitely feels formulaic and obvious, but this isn’t all bad, especially when you are talking genre fiction meant for readers who, as a group, devour books at an alarming rate and expect certain things (like happy endings, romantic interests with a dark/complicated side, opposites to attract…). Even as a rom-com, there are certain comedic expectations that are all ticked off, too (like the funny, mouthy, extroverted best friend who swoops in a the black moment, running into the romantic interest in embarrassing clothing…). Traditional plot line. A few quirky characters. Part of Henry’s genius, I think, is in sticking to all the genre expectations but doing it better than other writers with clean, clear writing and interesting characters.

Let’s say it this way: Beach Read isn’t built on surprises (at least not many that will actually surprise), but on tension. Which means Henry has to sell the reader some characters they are going to enjoy (for whatever reason), explore those characters and their situations in enough depth, open up a whole lot of questions that will take a long time to be answered, and then create electricity between the lead and the romantic interest. The electricity is key, and Beach Read has plenty of set-up to get the reader rooting for this couple (that seems to be headed both toward love and disaster and you want it to be love). Love with some hot (and some warm) romance scenes along the way. Henry gives us arguments and obstacles, and she gives us passionate kisses that have to end for some reason until much later in the book, things ramping up higher and higher all the time. (Though a little cheesy at times, I admired how Henry was able to keep the big she-bang of sex hanging over the head of reader and antagonist even in a world where these types of characters, as real people, would have fallen into bed with each other much earlier. It really helps build the tension, keeping the reader flipping the pages. It also took some innovative plot twists. I mean, we’re not in Victorian England anymore, and the build-up to romantic passion is generally much, much shorter nowadays.)

While taking place in a town that could really exist somewhere close to where Henry went to college, with people who could be real people in real situations, Beach Read is definitely a fantasy world. Again, this is genre standard, but some of these fantasies felt over-the-top to me, even though I was also secretly living out middle school dreams. (Example: January and Gus accidentally live next door to each other for a summer. Fine. Oh wait, but there’s more. Their houses are mirror images and are like a foot apart, important windows and decks lined up so that they practically live together but with some very helpful barriers.) Many of the plot devices were just fantastical enough that when all put together it read, to me, as a little cheesy. True, I’m not first and foremost a reader of romance or rom-coms, but, okay, something would be forgotten like one time so that the characters would have to move to a more romantic and symbolic location, or they would just prefer/happen to use a notebook and Sharpies to communicate over their smartphones. Cute. But perhaps cheesy. (I also found Henry’s presentation of literary fiction to be problematic. It was, well, off. Inaccurate. It is one of the genres I read most, and to say that it’s all dark and depressing and some other things she says about it is just not correct. So some of those conversational jokes fell flat with me. Only people who accept the reputation of lit fic from the outside (or a very small sampling) would accept some of the gags, here. No doubt Henry nails the romantic genre, though. I assume.)

Of course, because of the estimable execution of the genre staples plus interesting characters, romantic sparks (and fire), and the writerly world thrown in for kicks, I enjoyed the book. Beach Read did feel like an earlier book by Henry (which it was) than Book Lovers. I think she’s a fast learner and is improving (or her editing is getting better because she’s frickin’ famous now). So while it is a must-read if you do enjoy romance, I did think Book Lovers was better, a tad more mature.

(Note: though this book is called Beach Read and would make an excellent, actual beach read, don’t let it fool you: this is Michigan and a Great Lake, not some tropical get-away. There is no smell of coconut, no palm trees, no oil-slathered bodies writhing in any sand. No surfers. No lifeguards. Our two main characters don’t even really like the beach much and spend little time there, mostly afraid of the “cold” water. (I’m from Michigan. Technically they could have done much more of the aforementioned things, sans the palm trees, but January and co. (maybe Henry?) are just not into that scene.)

All in all, Beach Read is an easy, quick read with plenty of fireworks. It’s quick largely because you don’t want to put it down. You want to eat it like a chocolate-on-chocolate cake, which is what it sort of is. Maybe it’s more like a confetti cake with rainbow chip frosting, multi-color rosettes, and thirty candles. That would be January’s choice, at least before she had to re-figure out who she is. I would bet on Emily Henry continuing to write many more best-sellers as she rides off into the romance writers’ sunset. As readers, we’re engaged for the ride of Beach Read and most of us will leave saying, “That was fun.”

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