Who doesn’t love a good renovation story? Whether it’s the experts of “Queer Eye” making lifestyle improvements, Marie Kondo organizing clutter, the beloved hosts of “What Not to Wear” upgrading a wardrobe (still waiting on that reboot, TLC) or the “Property Brothers” giving a home a much-needed tuneup, we all like to watch professionals take a mess and rework, renew and restore it into something beautiful. There’s a hopefulness to renovations, too, in the idea that everything has hidden potential just waiting to be brought to light. And the main couple of Ashley Herring Blake’s Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail? Well, let’s just say they could use some touch-ups.
Carpenter Jordan Everwood has been spiraling since the abrupt, heartbreaking end of her marriage. On top of that, the place she loves most—her beloved grandmother’s historic Everwood Inn—is on the verge of closing. Their only hope is a renovation covered by “Innside America,” a popular TV show. But filming the show means working with glamorous, ice-cold designer Astrid Parker, with whom Jordan has a disastrous meet-ugly. Astrid is beautiful, composed, organized, efficient—and also desperately unhappy, locked in a life that doesn’t bring her any joy. And now, to save her stalled career, she’ll have to work with the exasperating, sarcastic, gorgeous, immensely talented Jordan, who thwarts and upstages her at every turn.
Far from being a match made in heaven, Astrid and Jordan seem more like a lit match and a fuse. It takes time for them to let down their walls, reveal their vulnerabilities and allow themselves to be seen and valued for who they really are. While Astrid is the eponymous character, Jordan’s journey actually proves the most moving. Practically from page one, it’s clear that Astrid’s relationship with her mother is toxic and that she’ll only find happiness when she learns to stand on her own. Her discovery of what truly brings her joy is sweet and satisfying (satisfying in every way—this is a romance novel, after all), but the plot threads feel fairly familiar. On the other hand, the lessons Jordan has to learn are not as immediately clear. I felt like I discovered along with her what she needed to hear someone say to her, what she needed to uncover about herself and, ultimately, what she deserved from life.
Why do we like renovation stories so much? Maybe because all of us are works in progress, too. There’s always the hope that, like Astrid and Jordan, we might end up renovated and restored into exactly who we’re meant to be—with exactly the partner we’re meant to have.
Ashley Herring Blake’s follow-up to Delilah Green Doesn’t Care is a hot and hopeful renovation romance.
Readers who loved the spunky, charming witches of St. Claire, introduced in Ann Aguirre’s previous Fix-It Witches romances, Witch Please and Boss Witch, will be thrilled to have a chance to dive back into her madcap world of magic and romance with Extra Witchy.
Having had two marriages end in divorce, Leanne Vanderpol may be twice burned, but she’s not remotely shy. When she meets Trevor Montgomery, she asks him if he’s interested in being her third husband. It’s a teasing pickup line at first, but it soon becomes a serious question—and a careful plan. After working in public relations for the slimy mayor, Leanne’s ready to emerge from behind the scenes and make a difference by running for city council. But she knows single women struggle to get elected, especially ones with divorces in their past. A sweet, charming, supportive husband could provide just the bump she needs to win over voters.
Trevor is certainly sweet and charming, but he’s also a little lost. He was popular in high school but never quite managed to find his footing afterward, and now he lives in his parents’ basement, working odd jobs and spending a lot of time getting high. A devastating breakup years earlier damaged his confidence, and his harshly critical family discourages him from seeking treatment for his depression. At first, he’s stunned that a beautiful, successful woman like Leanne would have any interest in him, but she’s equally surprised to find a kind man who has her back, supports her and values her for her mind as much as for her lovely face.
An accomplished woman and a more relaxed guy is always an appealing couple dynamic, and Extra Witchy is a perfect example of why. Trevor’s magnificently endearing without seeming unrealistic, and Leanne is a fantastic heroine: smart, strong, refreshingly frank and far more relatable than you’d expect, with carefully hidden vulnerabilities. They’re both immediately likable individuals who make a truly adorable couple. Fans of the series will be delighted to see more of the community set up in the previous books, from Leanne’s wonderful coven of witches to Trevor’s friends. The story does cover lots of ground, and as a result, some plot threads feel a bit rushed: The campaign starts the plot spinning, but then it’s over and done in what feels like just a flash. However, that’s just another sign of how engrossing Extra Witchy is. Even when I reached the end, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to these characters.
Ann Aguirre's latest paranormal romance is magnificently endearing, with two likable main characters who make a truly adorable couple.
Think life is full of bureaucracy? Try death! According to Therese Beharrie’s A Ghost in ShiningArmor, there’s a whole system at work once someone dies to help their soul move on to whatever comes next. For some, this means lingering as ghosts, visible only to rare humans like Gemma Daniels who help them resolve unfinished business. For others, death comes with an opportunity to take on an assignment . . . and maybe change their fate. This is what happens to Levi Walker: If he succeeds as a guardian angel, he”ll come back to life. And the person he’s been assigned to help just happens to be Gemma.
Gemma’s not freaked out at being approached by a ghost, given all the spirits she’s helped since she saw her first ghost at age 18. But unfortunately, her and Levi’s first meeting goes a little off the rails. If Gemma doesn’t acknowledge ghosts, they stay insubstantial and invisible to everyone but her. But if she acknowledges the spirit—touches them, talks to them or points them out to someone else, they become corporeal and visible to everyone. And because she accidentally acknowledges Levi, not realizing he’s a ghost, he now appears alive, leading to great confusion from her friends and family about the new man in her life. That scrutiny is the last thing she wants as she grapples with new information about her past: She has a twin sister (the heroine of Beharrie’s previous romance, And They Lived Happily Ever After). Levi was sent to help Gemma process the discovery that her twin was left in foster care while Gemma was adopted.
If this premise sounds a little zany, that’s because it is. There are plenty of hijinks, starting with Gemma and Levi’s impulsive meet cute kiss and continuing through fake dates, awkward cohabitation moments and all the banter and snark you’d expect from a rom-com. But Beharrie includes deeper character insights that balance the fluff. A Ghost in Shining Armor is as richly imagined as it is deeply moving, while being quite a lot of fun, as well. The tone can be a bit uneven in spots as Beharrie balances the humor and the pathos, but her characters are endearing enough to carry readers through.
A Ghost in Shining Armor is as richly imagined as it is deeply moving—and quite a lot of fun, as well.
Lizzie Blake knows that she’s a lot. A lot of energy and enthusiasm. A lot of creativity and vibrant warmth. But also a lot of mess and chaos. Her attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder can make things difficult, given that she lives in a world built for people whose brains don’t function like hers. After a lifetime of being labeled a disappointment by her stuffy, judgmental parents, it’s clear to her that “a lot” translates to “too much” for most people, particularly when it comes to long-term romance. She sticks to one-night stands until a birth control screw-up during a fling with Rake, a gorgeous Australian on vacation, results in a very permanent relationship—with the baby she decides to carry to term. When Rake insists on moving stateside so they can coparent, Lizzie knows that the smart move would be to avoid getting attached to him. But that proves trickier and trickier when they start living together, then sleeping together and then falling in love in spite of themselves.
Mazey Eddings’ Lizzie Blake’s Best Mistake doesn’t shy away from the very real problems that the titular character’s ADHD causes. You understand why Lizzie’s boss gets aggravated with her chronic lateness and her habit of losing track of important projects. You flinch a little on behalf of her roommate when Lizzie admits to losing yet another borrowed item. But Eddings also explores the depths of shame that Lizzie feels every time she’s made aware of another mistake. It’s easier for Lizzie to dwell on what she’s doing wrong instead of what she’s doing right, and it takes a lot of soul-searching—and a lot of encouragement from Rake—for her to realize that the ratio between her wrongs and rights isn’t what she thought.
Despite his own internal conflicts, including a commitment-phobic approach to romantic entanglements, Rake’s main role in the story is to open Lizzie’s eyes to all she has to offer. Even when she sees herself as a mess, he sees her as beautiful, charming, clever and endearing. Is he a little too perfect? Perhaps. But readers turn to romance novels because we want to believe that there are men like Rake out there: gorgeous, kind men who will come through even when things get messy; thoughtful and insightful men who will love their partners the way they deserve to be loved. Though the romance is a bit unbalanced—Lizzie doesn’t spend an equal amount of time showing Rake that he deserves to be loved as well—it’s hard to complain about seeing a woman who doubted her own value get showered with love, appreciation and respect.
Mazey Eddings’ rom-com situates readers deep within the point of view of her main character, letting them share in the highs and lows of her experiences with ADHD.
So, you made your way through not only “Bridgerton” but every other historical miniseries you could get your hands on, and now you’re faced with the daunting task of picking out a Regency romance novel from approximately one million titles. Don’t worry—we’re here to help. There are tons of terrific books out there, and because the subgenre has more variety than you might expect, we’ve added a complementary television series to each recommendation below to help you scope out the vibe.
A Duchess by Midnight
Miss Drewsmina “Drew” Trelayne is determined to make a name for herself as a guide for young debutantes embarking on their London season in A Duchess by Midnight by Charis Michaels. When her newly royal stepsister, Cynde, uses her connections to secure Drew’s first paying client, Drew has her work cut out for her. How can she teach the Duke of Lachlan’s troubled nieces proper deportment and etiquette when she can’t seem to stop herself from breaking all the rules with the irresistible, scandal-ridden duke?
Read if you loved “The Baby-Sitters Club”
Yes, we’re really comparing a Regency romance to a TV show based on a series of chapter books, and here’s why. Both A Duchess by Midnight and the recent Netflix adaptation of Ann M. Martin’s popular series, which launched in 1986, take a story that had grown a bit stagnant in our imaginations and make it feel fresh without losing the magic of the original. Drewsmina is a Regency version of the stepsisters from Disney’s Cinderella, and through her, Michaels breathes new life into a slightly dusty fairy tale. Far from being a two-dimensional figure, Drewsmina becomes the fully realized heroine of her own story by being willing to grow and change. Her less-than-perfect past makes her the ideal person to reach the lonely, isolated duke and his two wary girls in this charming twist on an age-old story.
Kunigunde “Kuni” de Heusch is determined to become the first Royal Guardswoman of Balcovia. She can’t get distracted by anyone or anything—not even Graham Wynchester. But when Graham interferes with her mission at the beginning of Erica Ridley’s Nobody’s Princess, Kuni ends up falling in with the astonishing Wynchester clan—going on adventures, learning acrobatic skills and discovering a brand of heroism and service that is like nothing she’s ever known. Her time in England is limited, and the future of her dreams is waiting for her in Balcovia. She’ll soon have everything she ever wanted . . . except for a certain remarkable man.
Read if you loved “The Umbrella Academy”
Unlike the characters in the comic book-inspired Netflix series, the Wynchesters don’t have supernatural powers, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to make the world a better place. These adopted siblings use their fortune to right wrongs and protect the innocent. They bicker with and tease and aggravate one another, while still coming together when there’s an enemy to face. It’s lovely to see Kuni fall for not only the eminently lovable Graham but also his entire family and their appreciation of and support for one another. Ridley’s take on the Regency period is quirkier and broader than the norm, but that just makes Nobody’s Princess all the more compelling and fun.
The Rake’s Daughter
In Anne Gracie’s The Rake’s Daughter half sisters Clarissa and Isobel Studley have no one but each other—and if their father had had his way, they wouldn’t even have that. Isobel is the illegitimate daughter whom the unscrupulous baronet had no interest in raising, and only Clarissa’s stubborn loyalty kept the girls together through childhood. They cling to each other even tighter when their father dies and they are sent to London to live with their new guardian, Leo Thorne, the Earl of Salcott. Because his opinion of Isobel stems from her father’s viciously cruel descriptions, Leo is appalled by his instantaneous and fierce attraction to her. As they both try to shepherd Clarissa through her first season, the fiery Isobel challenges Leo to see past his preconceptions.
Read if you loved “The Good Place”
Gracie takes a warmer, sweeter view of Regency high society; there are still challenges and prejudices, but there are also examples of extraordinary kindness, devotion and compassion. Like Eleanor and Michael in the afterlife-set TV show, the characters in The Rake’s Daughter have vibrant, rich personalities that make it easy to root for them. Leo has a particularly impressive character arc, starting off almost as an antagonist before becoming the hero he always had the potential to be. And it’s not just the lead characters who will steal your heart: Loyal, kind, insightful but insecure Clarissa is reminiscent of Chidi from “The Good Place,” and one can only hope she gets her own book soon.
★ A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting
Kitty Talbot, the heroine of Sophie Irwin’s A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting, is left with four sisters to care for and an ocean of debt after her father dies and her fiancé jilts her. The only thing left of value is herself, so it’s off to London and the marriage mart to find a rich match. Luck seems to be on her side when she’s able to catch the eye of sweet, easily manipulated Archie de Lacy, but her hopes are punctured when his disapproving older brother, Lord Radcliffe, comes to break up the match. Desperate to the point of recklessness, Kitty manages to convince Radcliffe to make a trade: She’ll leave his brother alone if he helps her find another match. But what starts out as a grudging alliance blooms into something more, something built on growing respect, admiration, attraction—and maybe even love.
Read if you loved “Inventing Anna”
If you loved the high-wire tension of the miniseries featuring Anna Delvey’s con artist exploits, then this is the Regency romance for you. But unlike Anna, Kitty is a heroine you can genuinely like, even as you marvel at her audacity. She’s clever and cunning, but she’s also wry, funny and refreshingly honest, with admirable reasons for her manipulative fortune-hunting. From the start, her sharp mind and ruthless practicality make the story relentlessly readable, charging scenes with terrific tension and biting wordplay. Crucially, however, there’s so much more to Kitty than her diamond-hard facade. She’s not a cipher but a vivid and relatable character. The more Radcliffe understands her, the more he loves her—as will readers.
Overwhelmed by the amount of Regency romances out there? Let us be your guide to this season's best reads.
If you enjoy the soap opera-esque twists and turns of the British royal family, especially if you’re entertained by the scandals but secretly hoping for happily ever afters, Tracey Livesay’s American Royalty is the romance for you. It’s what would happen if someone took Harry and Meghan, Charles and Di, Fergie of the British royals, Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, Notting Hill and a couple of seasons of “The Crown,” then dumped them all in a blender.
In an alternate version of the U.K., the stately, commanding Queen Marina II has decided to hold a concert to honor her beloved late husband, Prince John—and to distract the public from the misbehavior of her scandalous sister and children. Responsibility for the event rests on the shoulders of her grandson, Prince Jameson, the only child of Marina’s younger son. Jameson’s father was infamous for his disastrous marriage, which ended when he died in a fiery car crash along with his mistress. Jameson has spent most of his life withdrawn from the public eye and working as a professor, but just when he thought he was out, the queen drags him back in.
On top of the royally mandated responsibility of managing the event, Jameson will also host the concert’s star, American rapper Danielle “Dani” Nelson, on his private estate. The U.S. tabloids have been hounding Dani about a made-up feud pushed by a fame-chasing one-hit wonder, and the bad press is endangering not just her celebrity but also the financial prospects of her skin care company. Taking a break in the English countryside during the weeks leading up to the concert seems like a good way to unwind . . . right up until she falls into bed with a gorgeous prince who provides a much more fun way to release tension. Dani’s and Jameson’s lives don’t align, and any discovery of their affair would be disastrous to them both, but how long can practicality hold them back when the draw between them is so strong?
Whether you’re looking for echoes of Charles and Diana’s broken fairy tale, Harry and Meghan’s defiant love against the odds, Queen Elizabeth’s clenched fist around her family’s marionette strings or the British tabloids’ gift for making everything worse, this story delivers. American Royalty is also full of beloved romance tropes that are familiar to the point of predictability, but fortunately, the characters ground the story with personalities that break free from cliche. Dani in particular shines: She’s a boldly sensual, compelling performer who rattles the aristocracy just by being unapologetically herself. The story doesn’t shy away from the challenges of her life—including blatant misogyny and barely veiled racism—and there’s plenty to admire in her grit and determination. Jameson’s inner struggles are poignantly drawn as he tries to honor the grandfather he adored while also figuring out how much he’s willing to sacrifice to save his family from itself. The joy Dani and Jameson find together feels like a reward for all they’ve had to overcome. In a world where so much goes wrong, it’s satisfying to see this royal couple get it right.
If you enjoy the soap opera-esque twists and turns of the British royal family, Tracey Livesay's American Royalty is the romance for you.
A cozy small town. A quaint Main Street lined with quirky family-owned shops. Community events—farmers markets, pumpkin carving contests, Christmas tree lightings—attended by everyone. A plucky, adorable heroine finds love with the gorgeous guy who drove her crazy, right up until their nonstop sparring turned into love.
We all know the formulas. Like receiving a gift-wrapped bicycle, the joy doesn’t come from wondering, “Whatever could this be?” but rather from the instant recognition that you’ve gotten exactly what you want. Sweetness? Check. Warm fuzzies? Check. Happily ever after? Checkmate.
As Seen on TV
In Meredith Schorr’s debut, As Seen on TV, Adina Gellar has let made-for-TV movies convince her that everything wrong with her big-city life could be cured by a small-town romance. Of course she hasn’t found love in superficial, fast-paced New York City. What she needs is a down-home everyman who will offer her steadiness and commitment—something she craves both personally and professionally.
In a last-ditch effort to kick-start her freelance journalism career, Adina pitches a story about Pleasant Hollow, a nearby small town about to be forever changed by the addition of a huge housing tower. She anticipates being welcomed to Pleasant Hollow by a grandmotherly bed-and-breakfast owner, befriended by a spunky waitress and charmed by a small-town Romeo, all of whom will confirm that the interlopers are ruining the character of their adorable town. Instead, the B&B owner is curt, the waitress is impatient, the town is bleak and no one cares about the development or Adina . . . except for the tower’s project manager, Finn Adams. Despite being absolutely gorgeous, city boy Finn’s lack of interest in a picture-perfect HEA is a red flag for Adina.
Nevertheless, Adina remains plucky to the max and continues trying to fit everyone else into the parts she wants them to play. The relentlessness of her search for quaintness and charm is admirable, if at times exhausting, while her struggle to find a simple, straightforward romance in a way-too-complicated world is relatable. Schorr provides an interesting foil for Adina in Finn, who encourages and frustrates her in equal measure as he helps her realize that love doesn’t have to be neat and tidy to be right and real.
★ Nora Goes Off Script
Nora Hamilton, of Annabel Monaghan’s Nora Goes Off Script, lives on the other side of a romance fixation—not as the addict but as the dealer, churning out scripts of sweet, interchangeable stories for the Romance Channel. But when her spoiled wastrel of a husband leaves her and their two kids, and she realizes she’s secretly, guiltily glad to see him go, she ends up pouring her own story into a new screenplay.
That screenplay gets turned into a serious Hollywood movie, starring Hollywood’s most gorgeous star, Leo Vance, who comes to Nora’s house to film on location and then . . . doesn’t leave. Leo has looks, talent, fame, fortune and a smolder that could melt glass. But after a recent personal loss, he’s floundering to figure out who he is, and Nora’s historic home in a low-key small town seems like the right place to find his footing. Will love ensue? Romance readers know it will, but their mutual feelings manage to catch both Nora and Leo totally off guard.
The plot—big-city hotshot finding his real self with help from a small-town sweetheart—may be a classic formula, but not a single thing in Nora Goes Off Script comes across as predictable. The characters seem to genuinely discover their story as it unfolds, always digging for something authentic and rejecting stereotypes (at least, the ones that Monaghan doesn’t gently lampoon before employing). Nora and Leo’s struggles are honest and poignant, Nora’s children are genuine and nuanced characters who are never treacly or smarter than the adults, and the romance takes its time while taking its main couple seriously. Warm, witty and wise, Nora Goes Off Script tells the truth about all of love’s ups and downs: family love, friendship love, romantic love that comes to a wrenching end—and love that triumphs so beautifully, you’ll still be smiling over it long after you’ve put the book down.
Are you a sucker for a made-for-TV movie? Then you'll love As Seen on TV and Nora Goes Off Script.
What’s worse than being stood up on Valentine’s Day? Siobhan’s morning coffee date with her standing hookup was supposed to test the waters of them becoming more than just a good time. Miranda’s fancy lunch with her new beau was supposed to reinforce the seriousness of their relationship. And Jane’s date—well, Jane’s date was with a friend who agreed to play the part of her boyfriend at a social event so her nosy co-workers would stop matchmaking. The man hurts all three women with his absence. Yes, man, singular. Because the guy who ditches them all is the same person, one Joseph Carter.
It sounds like a premise for a French farce. In fact, anyone familiar with the play Boeing-Boeing by Marc Camoletti—or the movie adaptation with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis—might think they know where the story is going. But if you’re expecting an absurdist comedy in which everything is played for laughs, you’re in for a surprise. While Beth O’Leary’s The No-Show is frequently funny and playful, it’s never silly or frothy. O’Leary digs deep into the stories of these women: They’re three-dimensional, thoughtful, challenging people dealing with real problems and real feelings that are absolutely no joking matter. They also have great friends, who are fleshed out and fantastic characters in their own right, giving the story not just a sense of place and community but a genuine feeling of warmth. Each woman gets only a third of the book to herself, but O’Leary manages to convey intimate knowledge of each woman and her loved ones . . . with one exception. Joseph remains something of a cipher. O’Leary never steps inside his head to understand what he’s thinking or feeling.
O’Leary cleverly uses literary smoke and mirrors to keep Joseph’s motivations mysterious, and to keep the reader invested regardless. But the fact that such a pivotal piece is missing for most of the novel may leave readers cold, especially those looking for a more traditional love story. Siobhan, Miranda and Jane are painted so vividly that it’s frustrating to have their mutual love interest merely sketched in. When the romances aren’t center stage, The No-Show is a terrific read, filled with people who are enjoyable company even when the story goes to dark places, including struggles with doubt and insecurity and past traumas involving sexual manipulation and a miscarriage. O’Leary is a great storyteller, with keen insight into all the phases of romance, even falling out of love.
The No-Show is sweeter and sadder and deeper and lovelier than I expected, and I enjoyed reading it. But I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I hadn’t constantly been questioning “whydunnit.”
The No-Show is a terrific read, with keen insight into all the phases of romance and three very compelling female characters.
If you’re looking for a sweet, nostalgic Regency romance—all stately ballrooms, gallant suitors and sparkling repartee over tea with tiny sandwiches—keep looking. There’s nothing prim or proper about Lex Croucher’s dazzling debut novel, Reputation, which is so boldly, audaciously modern in its portrayal of 19th-century mean-girl culture that I kept waiting for someone to inform the heroine that on Wednesdays, they wear pink.
Georgiana Ellers is eager to find a society as exciting and glamorous as her favorite books, but her expectations are low. With neither money nor connections, her social opportunities are limited to what her aunt and uncle can provide, and their idea of excitement differs dramatically from hers. She is suffering through a dreadful party with bad lighting, worse punch and dismal company when in steps Frances Campbell. From that moment, nothing is ever dull again.
Frances is so sparkling, so vibrant and lively and witty and daring, that readers will be forgiven for thinking that she’s Georgiana’s love interest. Certainly, Georgiana is instantly smitten. Croucher understands the fierce, passionate crushes girls have on their friends—the yearning to be in another person’s orbit, to have them think of you as clever and charming. Romantic attachment makes the heart beat faster, but friendships burrow deeper under the skin; you feel them all the way to your bones. And that’s ordinary friendship. Frances is anything but ordinary. In addition to the giddy pleasure of her company, she exposes Georgiana to a world of fantastic wealth, endless indulgence and absolute debauchery. It’s fun, it’s dizzying, it’s literally intoxicating—and it’s very, very dangerous.
There’s bigotry—heaps of it, ranging from racism to chauvinism to classism to homophobia. There’s relentless mockery of any easy target, even within the “in” group. There’s peer pressure, slut-shaming and marriages so toxic that you wonder how they ever managed to reproduce. There’s an intense attempted rape depicted on the page and the heartbreaking aftermath of another assault. But for all that, Reputation is far from a dark story. While the book doesn’t shy away from the messier aspects of high-society life, it’s also filled with humor and charm, often via Georgiana, who is a refreshingly funny and frank protagonist. Her relationships are deep and complex, beautifully developed and sometimes shockingly sweet. And while a large portion of the story focuses on Georgiana’s feelings for her newfound friends, Croucher also weaves in a romance that provides a lovely contrast. Where Frances and her friends are wild, Thomas Hawksley is calm. Where they are spontaneous, he is deliberate. And where they bring out the worst in Georgiana, he brings out the best.
Reputation is not always an easy read, but it’s a vivid and fascinating one. And it’s definitely not quaint.
Reputation is not always an easy read, but author Lex Croucher’s take on the Regency period is vivid, fascinating and the opposite of quaint.
As a contestant on the reality cooking competition show “Chef’s Special,” Dahlia Woodson is looking to reinvent herself and find a new path forward. London Parker, the show’s first nonbinary contestant, has figured out who they are and wants to show the world what they can do. Dahlia and London’s chemistry is dynamic, and their cooking is delicious . . . but the course of love and reality TV never runs smoothly. We asked Anita Kelly, author of Love & Other Disasters, to share the secret sauce of their storytelling.
At multiple points in the book, Dahlia focuses on the building blocks of cooking—starting with something simple. Do you have an equivalent of that for writing? When you start with the basics of a story, what does that look like for you? For me, stories always begin with characters. I usually think of one main character and a problem they’re struggling with, and then it’s like, all right, who are they going to meet who’s going to help them keep moving? Who’s going to tell them they’re OK? I can never start a story until I know my people.
Both London’s sister, Julie, and Dahlia’s brother, Hank, are fantastic characters. Was that close sibling dynamic something you wanted to explore? Do you have a sibling or friend who fits in that category? I have always been so drawn to siblings as important parts of stories. I grew up with two older siblings of my own, along with a ton of cousins who were all very close in their own sibling dynamics. I also watched how close my parents were with their siblings. So it probably has been ingrained in me from personal experience. But it’s also just this idea of someone who is literally with you your entire life (if you’re lucky), who has to love you through every single one of your embarrassing, confusing stages.
It was also important to me, since both Dahlia and London have struggles with their parents, that they still had a solid family foundation through their siblings. Someone who would still have their backs, like you said, no matter what. Someone who could remind them they were loved and had a soft place to land back home, even when their Los Angeles lives got complicated.
While filming “Chef’s Special” in LA, Dahlia spends a lot of time thinking about “LA Dahlia” and how she’s different from the person she’s been at home. Was that something you wanted to tap into, how coming to a new place and breaking out of our routines can open us up to new things? LA Dahlia was probably the most personal part of this book, when I think about it. I grew up in a small town on the East Coast, and as an angsty teen, I used to fantasize about breaking out and escaping to California, which seemed like the epitome of romance and adventure and freedom. I was that weirdo who spent a disproportionate amount of time listening to “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas instead of . . . anything else I should have been listening to as a ’90s kid. Anyway, I have been able to travel quite a bit since my teenage years and will always have wanderlust in my bones, but LA still seems particularly magical to me. I think the idea of LA Dahlia was probably me manifesting my deepest teenage desires.
LA Dahlia is, of course, the same person as Maryland Dahlia, the same person as Massachusetts Dahlia. They all matter, and they are all her. But allowing ourselves to dream big, to live out untold versions of ourselves, is something that traveling to a new place can absolutely help unlock.
Dahlia and London compare notes on their chosen comfort foods. Is your own favorite comfort food hidden in their answers? Funnily enough, not really. For London, I have to give credit to my brother-in-law, who really knows food. I am, in fact, not much of a foodie at all, and when I was just starting to draft this book, I asked him what he would consider a great meal. I can’t remember what his full answer was, but he was super enthusiastic about how much he loves just browning up a bunch of Brussels sprouts with a ton of butter, and I was like, now there’s something I would never do. But London Parker would.
For me, anything involving cheese or ice cream is my comfort spot. If it’s covered in cheese, I will eat it. And especially during the pandemic, I have gone through, like, multiple cartons of Ben & Jerry’s a week and am not ashamed. If I ever develop an intolerance to lactose, I will need a lot of emotional support.
In all seriousness, though, I think love should feel a lot like comfort food, which is probably why I put such emphasis on it in this story. A healthy relationship and our favorite foods are both deeply personal and full of reliable joy.
Often in romance novels, the sex is idealized—perfect bodies, perfect synchronicity, sweeping waves of passion with nothing messy or awkward or unsure. But in one of their very first sexual encounters, Dahlia argues for the importance of recognizing her and London’s individual imperfections. What went into making that choice? I could talk about this topic for a long time, but painting sex—and bodies—as imperfect and messy and funny is one of the most important parts of writing romance to me. Because that’s what sex is! Bodies and sex are so freaking weird! Sex can be all of those things—messy and funny and imperfect—and it can be sensual and serious and hot.
Of course, I am as much of a sucker in my own romance reading life for toned bodies, hunky muscles and magically perfect sex as anyone. And I’ve written some of that, too. Seriously, I am always down for beautiful people really knowing how to please their partners. But I think it’s not only more honest but also simply more interesting to write about the more diverse realities of bodies and sex. The more we normalize talking through sex, laughing through sex and doing whatever the hell wewant during sex (with consent), the better our relationships with our bodies, our partners and our sexualities will be. I do think there’s more imperfect sex these days in romance, along with more inclusion of characters on the asexual spectrum as well, which is great.
It was really important to me to get the sex in this book right. I wanted to have on-page sex with a nonbinary character to show that even people with complicated relationships with their bodies and identities can still have great sex, while still being respectful of London’s autonomy. I can’t profess to have gotten it perfect, and if any other nonbinary or trans folks out there have feedback about how I could do it better next time, my ears are always open.
Cooking is a lifeline for Dahlia, and it’s something she leaned into during a difficult period in her life. Does cooking have that same significance for you? For sure. I am only physically able to cook when I am doing mentally OK. Like, to have the energy and the focus to make a full-ass meal for myself? Whenever it happens (and during the pandemic, it has not been often), I know I’m doing OK. And I always feel really, really proud of myself. Even if it’s only something simple.
Dahlia needs that feeling, of feeling proud of herself, of feeling in control of something. And she can only find that, in the beginning of the book, through cooking. I am not actually a great chef, but I do deeply understand that feeling. Writing is similar; I can only do it when my brain is working right. Each meal, each page written, is an accomplishment to be proud of.
I love how Dahlia and her brother use top 10 lists to combat the sads, such as Top 10 “Lizzie McGuire” episodes and Top 10 cheeses. I’m going to boldly assume that this is a personal tradition of yours, and if so, what is the craziest top 10 list you’ve ever come up with? OK, I am sad to say top 10 lists are not a regular part of my life these days, but I am a staunch supporter of a good list, and once upon a time, I did have a journal that I dedicated solely to list-making. I lived in Boston at the time, and “Favorite Things I’ve Seen While Riding the T” was probably my favorite list in it. If you’ve ever ridden the T, you get it.
There’s a deeply personal and moving scene in which London sees messages of support and thanks on their social media accounts for the representation they offer. Does that mirror your own experience with readers’ responses to your stories? Readers have mentioned that section as being particularly moving, and when I read it now, I agree. But it’s funny because writing those messages was so hard when I first drafted this book. I was cringing the whole time I typed them out, like oh my god, this is so cheesy, help. There’s something difficult about accepting simple, genuine kindness and support. We have all been so hardened. But I’m glad I forced myself to write them. Because you can find simple, genuine kindness and support, even on the internet. You just have to force yourself past all the trash fires to let yourself accept it.
I’m no London Parker—I would never survive on reality television—but I have been incredibly humbled and moved by the response to this book. People have mentioned it being the first book they read with a nonbinary character, and I actually love when people mention that it took them a while to get used to reading they/them pronouns for London, but that by the end, they got the hang of it. Because for a lot of people, that’s an honest experience! And the only way to normalize something is to have access to it. I am by no means the first romance author to write a nonbinary character, but it still feels like a privilege to be able to provide that first experience on the page for some people, to show the importance of getting even more gender-diverse stories out there.
Something else I’ve heard that’s made me think a lot is gratitude from people who might be cisgender but are in relationships with nonbinary or trans or gender-nonconforming people. That it’s comforting to see a relationship similar to their own in a romance, to see both themselves and the people they love depicted on the page. Whoever you are, it means something to actually see your own experiences, or even something close to them, in the medium that you love.
I also love, of course, when Dahlia’s storyline hits with people—that desire to want something different and meaningful for yourself but not knowing quite how to find it—because I think that’s a part of so many of us. Overall, I was so anxious to put this book out there—you often only imagine the very worst criticisms that you know you could receive—and the response so far has meant more than I could ever possibly express.
Author photo by Anita Kelly.
Anita Kelly, author of Love & Other Disasters, shares the secret sauce of their storytelling.
A lot of people think writing a romance novel is easy. A pair of attractive, charismatic characters meet, they have reasons why they can’t fall in love, they fall in love anyway, troubles intrude and then all the loose strings are tied together in a happily ever after. Easy, right? But knowing all the ingredients is no guarantee of producing a perfect dish. The secret is in the sauce, as every chef knows. What’s the secret sauce for writing a perfectly delicious romance novel? I have no idea, but I do know that Love & Other Disasters, Anita Kelly’s culinary whirl of a love story, has got it.
We begin with Dahlia Woodson, a rebel in desperate need of a cause who has grabbed onto cooking with both hands. After years of drifting along without a clear direction, while also being stuck in a souring marriage that eventually ended in a painful divorce, she found solace in creating perfectly flavored soups and delicately crafted pasta. And then the lifeline of cooking led her in a new direction: all the way to Los Angeles as one of 13 contestants on “Chef’s Special,”a cooking competition show.
Also in the lineup is London Parker, the show’s first nonbinary contestant. Where Dahlia is seeking purpose, London is focused and direct. Where Dahlia is spontaneous, London is structured. Where Dahlia is beautifully chaotic, London is intricately precise. And where Dahlia is lonely . . . London is lonely, too. Like salty and sweet, they’re two great tastes that bring out the best in each other. In London, Dahlia has someone she can trust, someone who cherishes her in a way that no one ever has. And in Dahlia, London finds someone who opens up their world. Coming out has not been easy for London—and that’s before going on television for the world to see. Dahlia’s open acceptance and affection help them settle into truly accepting themself in every way.
Love & Other Disasters is a delicious confection of a story: savory, succulent and also a bit salty in spots, thanks to certain difficult personalities that come into play. The characters, from our protagonists to the other contestants to the crew on the show, feel vibrant and real in their virtues and most especially their flaws. But while the plot is rich and surprising, the central romance is sweet, right from the start. London and Dahlia discover love together in a way that is charming and genuinely moving. It’s easy not only to fall in love with them as they fall for each other but also to root for them all the way to their sumptuous happy ending. The only bad thing about this book is that even after you’ve gorged on the whole thing, it’ll leave you wanting more.
The only bad thing about Love & Other Disasters is that even after you’ve gorged on the whole thing, it’ll leave you wanting more.
Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.