When Chloe Brown is almost hit by a car, the life that flashes before her 31-year-old eyes is, frankly, quite boring. So she sets out to start living a life she won’t regret, guided by a to-do list: move into her own flat, ride a motorcycle, “do something bad,” etc. All she manages to cross off is the moving part, but in doing so she meets Red, her new building’s super and a man stuck in his own pause; when his relationship imploded, he didn’t know how to continue the art career his abusive girlfriend had been so integral to. When they meet, Red thinks Chloe is an icy snob; Chloe thinks Red hates her. And Red thinks he hates her, too — her discomfort does manifest as rudeness! — but when he rescues Chloe from rescuing a kitten from a tree, he starts to see beneath her facade. When she soon discovers that Red owns a motorcycle, she enlists his help in checking items off her list. With GET A LIFE, CHLOE BROWN (369 pp., Avon, paper, $15.99), Talia Hibbert shows how standard romance tropes — misunderstandings, meddling sisters, a steamy camping trip — can be elevated to sublime pleasure in the hands of a brilliant writer. Everything about Chloe and Red’s story feels honest, specific and real. And magical, even when real-life concerns like chronic illness can never fade away. This is an extraordinary book, full of love, generosity, kindness and sharp humor.
If romance novels are wish fulfillment, Lyssa Kay Adams’s THE BROMANCE BOOK CLUB (339 pp., Berkley, paper, $16) takes things to a new, very meta level, centering a series on a group of men who read romance novels to learn how to improve their relationships with women. A pro baseball player named Gavin is welcomed into this secretive cabal when his friends find out his wife has asked for a divorce. What he can’t bear to tell them is why: He recently discovered that Thea has been faking her orgasms for their entire marriage, and while that’s not a reason to end a marriage, the way Gavin handled the news (poorly, angrily) might be. Gavin’s bros assign him a historical romance novel starring the seventh Earl of Latford as a text to study (it’s also spliced into Adams’s book) and they talk him through adapting and implementing what he reads. Of course, this works beautifully: Romance novel heroes know to listen to their partners, work to perceive and fulfill their needs, and express emotion vulnerably and honestly. And of course it’s going to backfire: He’s Cyrano-ing her with a book! Wish fulfillment is never as simple as it seems. But nothing about Adams’s novel is simple, as it unfurls its catchy premise with surprising wisdom and specificity. The earl’s moves allow Gavin to access a new bravery with Thea, which is far more meaningful than any new techniques in bed. The club helps Gavin see not only his own mistakes, but also those Thea needs to work through and resolve herself. This is a lovely and sweet story, an honest and hopeful portrayal of the hard work of marriage.
From a contemporary romance with a pastiche of historical fiction, we move to a historical novel that’s a pastiche of … ’80s teen movies? The laws of linear time do not apply, and thank goodness, because MY FAKE RAKE (366 pp., Avon, paper, $7.99), the first in a new series by Eva Leigh, is a jolt of electricity, a blast of fresh air — everything delightful and exciting you could want it to be. The herpetologist Lady Grace Wyatt has her eye on a handsome fellow naturalist who sees her just as a friend, so she recruits her friend Sebastian, an anthropologist, to pose as a rakish aristocrat and pretend to court her, to drive up her social value and get her crush to notice her. Sebastian’s secretly in love with Grace, but he goes along with the plan because he truly wants her to be happy.
Sebastian is a rare romance hero who’s neither a blustery alpha nor a sensitive cinnamon roll; he struggles to express his emotions because he’s so socially anxious. (Leigh delicately, if speedily, works him through this anxiety.) Bookishness is woven through both of his and Grace’s characters, and Sebastian’s anthropological asides are especially endearing. He’s a thoroughly believable hot nerd. Grace quickly realizes just how hot he is with a haircut and replacement (or removal) of his scruffy, scholarly garb, but it takes her far longer to realize how she feels about him. That gender-swapped makeover isn’t Leigh’s only update to the ’80s tropes: Most important, Sebastian is intensely mindful that it’s Grace’s prerogative to want to be just friends, to the point that his determination not to ruin the friendship blinds him to Grace’s very strong signals. But if Sebastian and Grace need to be obtuse a little longer than feels plausible, it’s worth it to draw out this delight.