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Every year, the BookPage editors must once again ask the question: What, exactly, does “summer reading” even mean? Here are our definitions, in literary form.

The Season

I devour lighthearted, escapist romances and mysteries during the summer. Basically, if it can hold my attention despite all the distractions of a packed pool or a sunny park, it’s going in my tote bag. However, to keep my brain from snapping in half when I inevitably turn to more challenging books in the fall, I also make sure to reach for a few weightier yet still seasonably appropriate titles. Kristen Richardson’s history of the debutante is my gold standard. Impeccably researched but unabashedly glam and gossipy, The Season describes gorgeous gowns and high society queen bees with the same inquisitive rigor it applies to unpacking the intersections of race and class. In its various permutations, the debutante tradition encapsulates cultural ideas about femininity and its value; depending on the context, it can be regressive or liberating, stifling or affirming. (The chapter on African American debutante balls alone is worth the price of admission.) Make this your afternoon poolside read, and you’ll be the most interesting person at dinner later that night.

—Savanna, Associate Editor

Deacon King Kong

When my yard is alive with bugs and birds, when they’re screaming and singing and zipping through the trees, I want a book that crackles with that kind of electricity, like Deacon King Kong. Set in 1969 Brooklyn, James McBride’s seventh novel opens in the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing projects where, in broad daylight, a 71-year-old alcoholic church deacon known as Sportcoat shoots the ear off a 19-year-old drug dealer. That seemingly gritty opening leads into an affectionate village novel that follows a multitude of characters, including congregants of the Five Ends Baptist Church, a lovelorn police officer and an Italian mobster known as the Elephant. As readers learn the truth about Sportcoat’s actions, they also follow foibles and treasure hunts and slapstick party scenes. No one’s the “bad guy,” not even the mob bosses or dirty cops. The dialogue is some of the best you’ll ever read, and many scenes are gut-bustingly funny. Summer is a joy, and so is this book.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

Group

I am not a great lover of summertime. The heat, the dirt, the bugs—all of it sends me indoors with a glass of lemonade. This makes a book like Group by Christie Tate my perfect summer read. I tore through this book on vacation last year, using every moment alone in the empty, air-conditioned house to fly through a few more chapters while everyone else was outside. Tate’s memoir of the years she spent in an unconventional group therapy setting ranges from salacious to vulnerable to truly touching. All she has to do, her new therapist tells her, is show up to these group sessions and be honest—about everything. Sexuality, food, relationships, family, death—everything. As Tate slowly opens up to her fellow group members, she builds real friendships for the first time and learns to defuse the shame and low self-worth that had kept her from making authentic connections during her first 26 years. Perfect for a weekend trip or plane ride, this book’s got heart, hope and enough juicy confessions to keep you turning the pages at lightning speed.

—Christy, Associate Editor

All That She Carried

Whether I’m traveling across the world on a plane or installed under an umbrella on the beach, summer adventures inspire me to decenter screens and their attendant distractions. This means I have the capacity to focus on books that reward a reader’s careful attention, like Tiya Miles’ National Book Award-winning All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. Miles, a historian and MacArthur Foundation fellowship recipient, uses a single artifact—a simple cotton sack given to a 9-year-old child named Ashley by her mother when Ashley was sold to a different plantation—to offer insight into the often undocumented lives of Black women. As she traces the journey of Ashley’s sack from its origins in 1850s South Carolina through the Great Migration and to its eventual discovery at a Nashville flea market, Miles honors the strength of family ties and finds creative ways to fill gaps in the historical record. This book will make you both think and feel, providing a reading experience to remember.

—Trisha, Publisher

The Diviners

There is nothing I want more in the summer than a big honking series. (Especially if it’s complete. No cliffhanger endings for me!) I want to dive into a fictional world for as long as possible before coming up for air, and Libba Bray’s quartet of novels about supernaturally gifted teens solving mysteries in New York City during the Roaring ’20s fits the bill to a T. The series opener is replete with positutely delicious period vernacular and horrors both imagined (a murderous ghost resurrecting himself with body parts carved from his victims) and all too real (“color lines” at jazz clubs where Black Americans perform on stage but aren’t allowed to enter as customers). The Diviners is exactly the sort of tale I love to stay up into the wee hours of hot summer nights reading—which is good, because in Bray's talented hands, some scenes are so terrifying that I wouldn't be able to turn off the lights anyway.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

Any book can be a beach read if you put your mind to it.

The Bride Goes Rogue

Joanna Shupe sets the pages on fire in the passionate Gilded Age romance The Bride Goes Rogue, the third entry in her Fifth Avenue Rebels series. Romantically minded Katherine Delafield has always looked forward to marriage, even though her own union has been arranged by her father. Her intended, New York City tycoon Preston Clarke, is a man she’s only seen from afar, and she’s stunned and humiliated when she learns that Preston has no intention of honoring his agreement with her father. Intent on making up for lost time, Katherine attends a scandalous masquerade ball and enjoys an exciting dalliance with a masked man—who turns out to be none other than her ex-betrothed. Despite their shock at discovering each other's identity, neither truly regrets that steamy encounter . . . and all the other ones that follow. The ruthless Preston proves to have a heart after all, and despite being a naive ingenue, Katherine surprises him with her ardent desires. Shupe skillfully brings the opulent setting to life, and Katherine and Preston’s love story will leave readers with racing hearts and satisfied smiles.

From Bad to Cursed

The peace of the magical town of Thistle Grove is threatened in From Bad to Cursed by Lana Harper. Four supernaturally gifted families live side by side in relative harmony in this Illinois community. The paranormal citizens make a living providing exciting, supposedly fake experiences to tourists, aka “normies”—at an occult superstore, for instance, or a haunted house. But during one of the town’s celebrations to mark the festival of Beltane, a mysterious curse nearly strips young witch Holly Thorn of her powers. Holly’s upstanding cousin Rowan Thorn and town wild child Isidora Avramov are ordered to investigate. Rowan and Issa have been enemies for years, but as they hunt down the person who cast the curse, their antagonism morphs into a surprisingly strong mutual attraction. From Bad to Cursed is an all-senses escape into a vivid and inventive world. Written from Issa’s snarky first-person perspective, this paranormal rom-com is sure to delight.

Something Wilder

Readers are invited along on an exciting adventure in author-duo Christina Lauren’s Something Wilder. Lily Wilder leads tourists on fake treasure hunts through the beautiful desert landscapes of Utah. It’s a career path made possible by Lily’s infamous treasure hunter father, Duke Wilder—and made necessary by her late father’s lack of financial planning. To her unpleasant surprise, Lily’s latest group of clients includes Leo Grady, the man who got away (or, more specifically, left her) 10 years ago. Even as they grapple with their past and what drove them apart, unforeseen danger requires Leo and Lily to combine their reserves of courage and cleverness to survive. The authors clearly hold the red rocks and canyons of Utah dear and describe them in loving detail throughout. Something Wilder is laden with suspense, intrigue and fun as its main couple faces down danger and learns to love again.

These three romances by Joanna Shupe, Lana Harper and Christina Lauren are perfect seasonal reads.

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.
Summer reading
STARRED REVIEW

June 2022

Your 2022 BookPage summer reading guide

Maybe your perfect summer read is pure escapism, heady fun, nonstop thrills or great big heaps of feelings. Whatever your summer vibe, we’ve got a book for you.

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Dinosaurs are such a large part of our culture—from books, movies and amusement park rides to children’s toys, clothing and even dino-shaped chicken nuggets—that it’s hard to imagine a time before we knew these huge beasts walked the earth millions of years before us.

The backstory to that revelation is thrillingly outlined in a new book by Reuters senior reporter David K. Randall (Dreamland) called The Monster’s Bones: The Discovery of T. Rex and How It Shook Our World. While on an outing to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Randall and his family kept circling back to the captivating, terrifyingly surreal Tyrannosaurus rex exhibit, prompting his son to ask, “Who found these dinosaurs?” This perfectly reasonable inquiry inspired Randall to consider “the human stories behind prehistoric bones.”

In The Monster’s Bones, Randall delves into early fossil discoveries and scientists’ subsequent interpretations of these bones’ origins. As it turns out, industry titans weren’t the only ruthlessly determined men of the Gilded Age. This era also inspired the “bone wars,” literally a race to find the largest and most complete dinosaur skeletons. Housing these displays at museums and universities was a huge status symbol and a way to draw in the public and boost admission.

Randall focuses on the stories of two very different men who participated in this competition: paleontologist and Princeton graduate Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Barnum Brown, a farmer’s son from Kansas who was a skilled fossil hunter. Brown would travel thousands of miles, from the American West to Patagonia, in order to hunt down prize specimens for Osborn’s American Museum of Natural History. Their intertwined story is full of adventure, intrigue and conflict, leading up to Brown’s world-changing discovery of the ferocious T. rex.

Exciting as any action tale, The Monster’s Bones features characters from all walks of life, from cowboys and ranchers to scientists, railroad magnates and university scholars. As with any valuable assets, greed was a big factor driving this race to succeed. However, it also pushed science ahead by leaps and bounds, leading to findings that still inform paleontologists and biologists today.

Exciting as any action tale, The Monster’s Bones shares the human stories behind some of history’s most thrilling fossil discoveries.

On the island of Skyros, trans women are given safe harbor. When Wrath Goddess Sing begins, Achilles is hiding out on this island from those who wish her ill. She was a “wild spider of a boy-girl” when she first arrived but now has a cherished lover and an accepting community. All of that is threatened when Odysseus and Diomedes arrive, searching for the hero they know as the “prince” and “son” of the goddess Athena to help them win back the stolen Helen of Troy. Achilles herself would rather die than be forced to serve as a man in war, but Athena grants her another option: to fight with the body she’s always wanted. Due to her talent in combat, Achilles proves herself in Troy to be a valiant soldier. But the gods have endless secrets and machinations, and Achilles is now at the center of a deadly, divine game.

Author Maya Deane’s prose is lyrical without venturing into purple territory, poignantly guiding readers through Achilles’ internal and external trials. Take this moment, when Achilles contemplates returning to war as a man: “It would be worse than death—the death of her self, the inexorable corrosion of her soul, until even her name was forgotten and nothing was left but the shell of a man she never was.”

Why Maya Deane reimagined Achilles as a trans woman.

Some prior knowledge of the Iliad will maximize the enjoyment of this novel, if only to provide some context for Deane’s beautifully realized Mediterranean landscape and her depiction of the Greek gods as vivid, often malicious beings. Deane’s descriptions of these entities are utterly entrancing: Athena, for instance, has eyes “so unnaturally large [they were] too enormous to turn in their sockets—owl’s eyes.” Her vivid imagination also extends to the Iliad’s cast of complicated, iconic human characters, whom she brings to life with confidence and skill.

Wrath Goddess Sing is a mythic reinvention for the ages that asks questions about topics such as trans identity, passing and the politics of the body.

Wrath Goddess Sing is a mythic reinvention for the ages that follows a trans, female Achilles as she faces down divine machinations.

Readers are treated to two expertly crafted mysteries in Australian author Sulari Gentill’s The Woman in the Library.

Four strangers are sharing a table at the Boston Public Library when they hear a woman’s terrified scream. Winifred “Freddie” Kincaid, Cain McLeod, Marigold Anastas and Whit Metters form a quick friendship while they wait for security guards to figure out what happened. When a woman’s body is later found in the library, the new friends realize they didn’t just hear a scream: They may have overheard a murder. Freddie, Cain, Marigold and Whit set out to discover what happened that afternoon, but they soon realize that their meeting wasn’t random—because one of them is the murderer.

But there’s yet another twist! The characters of Freddie, Cain, Marigold and Whit are just that: characters in a novel being written by an Australian woman named Hannah. She’s corresponding with an American writer named Leo, emailing him the chapters of her mystery novel as she completes them. Leo’s detailed responses follow each chapter, and readers soon realize he is more than an appreciative fan. Leo may be just as dangerous as one of the characters in Hannah’s story.

The author of more than a dozen mysteries, Gentill has created a smart, engaging novel that blurs genre lines. The mystery set within the library is a fresh take on the locked-room mystery, and Leo’s emails to Hannah create an increasingly ominous epistolary thriller, despite the distance between the characters. It’s an inventive and unique approach, elevated by Gentill’s masterful plotting, that will delight suspense fans looking for something bold and new.

Readers are treated to an inventive and expertly crafted mystery-within-a-mystery in Sulari Gentill's The Woman in the Library.

“Those were the good old days” is a phrase people love to say as they wax poetic about bygone eras. It’s understandable to feel nostalgic given our current chaotic landscape, but as The Lunar Housewife points out, it’s not necessarily merited. Caroline Woods’ historical thriller, set in the final days of the Korean War and the onset of the Cold War, spins a tale of big-city intrigue as it follows a promising young waitress-turned-writer and the increasingly disturbing secrets she uncovers. The result is an addictive binge of a read that’s equal parts intelligent introspection and nail-biting suspense.

It's 1953, and Louise Leithauser has come a long way from Ossining, New York. The 25-year-old daughter of a housecleaner is now rubbing elbows with the likes of Truman Capote and Arthur Miller in New York City as a writer for the hip literary magazine Downtown. Louise is writing political pieces for Downtown (under a male pen name, but why look a gift horse in the mouth?), dating the magazine’s handsome co-founder, Joe Martin, and penning a sci-fi romance novel, The Lunar Housewife, in her spare time. She’s also certain her twin brother, Paul, who is missing in action in Korea, will come home any day now. But when Louise overhears a conversation between Joe and his colleague Harry regarding mysterious surveillance and their magazine’s dangerous connections, she begins to wonder if anything in her carefully constructed existence is really what it seems.

Coming off her critically acclaimed debut Fräulein M., Woods takes the reader into the tangled web of American-Soviet relations and the dark secrets underneath the New York literary scene’s sparkling surface. Even Katherine, the protagonist of Louise’s novel-in-progress, isn’t immune. A former World War II pilot who voluntarily defected from the States to go on a groundbreaking mission to the moon, Katherine starts to suspect all is not well on Earth or in space. Both Louise and Katherine live in a world that is run by men, but these smart, capable women are not going down without a fight.

The Lunar Housewife will have readers thinking long and hard about how good the “good old days” really were.

The Lunar Housewife is an addictive read that's equal parts intelligent introspection and nail-biting suspense.

The Mutual Friend is a stylized, laugh-out-loud funny social satire with devastating aim.

Like his long-running sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” Carter Bays’ debut novel is a New York City-set ensemble comedy with plenty to say about the discontents of modern life and the difficulty of connection, with one character who acts as a pivot around which the story hinges.

Alice Quick, originally named Truth, was one of twin baby girls adopted by two different families in the Midwest shortly after birth. A musical prodigy turned chronic underachiever, Alice feels rudderless and lost. She wants to be a doctor—possibly, maybe—but lacks the energy to follow through. Even registering for the medical school entrance exam is overwhelming.

When Alice’s roommate gets engaged, things go from difficult to worse. Alice is suddenly in need of shelter, and desperation lands her in a basement apartment near Columbia University. Finding housing in a convenient neighborhood seems lucky, but Alice quickly gets caught up in the whirlwind that is her new roommate, the imposing and mercurial Roxy.

Roxy is a tour-de-force character who epitomizes the ephemeral nature of life in 2015 New York City. She has a complicated yet hilarious relationship with reality, and the push-pull of her conversations with Alice is priceless. But Roxy is just one of the wonderful and absurd creations within Bays’ debut.

Like The Bonfire of the Vanities for the era of reality TV and social media, The Mutual Friend is a conflagration of cringe, as Bays paints a slightly heightened and terrifying vision of life in our age of distraction. Similar to Patricia Lockwood’s 2021 novel, No One is Talking About This, Bays’ novel sometimes replicates the thought processes of a brain addled by the overstimulation of the internet and omnipresent media: run-on sentences, a litany of random bits of information hitting the reader from multiple sources and a narrative that bounces from one topic to another with abandon.

More than anything else though, the nearly 500-page novel explores people bumping into one another and deciding if they have what it takes to make it stick. And because the book is poised for laughs and broad humor, its painful, critical sections hit harder. For example, Roxy’s second date with a slightly older man, Bob, whom she met on a Tinder-like service called “Suitoronomy,” goes south when she discovers that he’s the focus of a “DO NOT date this guy” blog post. Exposed, charming, dimpled Bob hits back with misogynistic venom. His response is beyond cringe; it’s repulsive. Yet it’s hard to dismiss Bob as a mere internet creep, as the novel gives him an origin story, too, and his tendency to follow the newest, shiniest thing is reflected throughout the larger story in many ways.

The Mutual Friend dwells at the corner of restless and randomness, displacement and dissatisfaction. The narrative is full of stray thoughts and chance encounters, everything fleeting and devastating. All told, it’s riveting.

The Mutual Friend is a conflagration of cringe, as debut novelist Carter Bays paints a slightly heightened and terrifying vision of life in the age of distraction.

A former college roommate drops into Ava Wong’s seemingly perfect life after 20 years and wreaks havoc in Counterfeit, Kirstin Chen’s lively caper about importing counterfeit high-end handbags from China. Chen’s third novel is a breezy read with unexpected twists, carried along by Ava’s seemingly heartfelt narration as she confesses her involvement to a police detective. Along the way, there are plenty of fascinating details about luxury goods and the shadow industry of fake designer products. (Even readers who aren’t fashion devotees will likely find themselves checking the prices of crocodile Birkin 25s and Hermes Evelynes as the plot thickens.)

Ava, a Chinese American graduate of Stanford University and law school at the University of California, Berkeley, is a corporate lawyer on leave with a toddler son and a surgeon husband. She’s given little thought to former roommate Winnie Fang, who abruptly left college and returned home to China after what appeared to be an SAT scandal. Upon their unexpected reunion, Ava is amazed by Winnie’s transformation from an “awkward, needy . . . fresh off the boat” college freshman into a glamorous, successful businesswoman.

Rather quickly, Winnie inserts herself into Ava’s life. The timing is just right for such an intervention, as Ava is particularly vulnerable: Her mother recently died, her son throws nonstop tantrums, and Ava can’t stand the thought of returning to her legal firm.

Eventually Winnie recruits Ava to join her scheme: buying high-end handbags from luxury stores, returning imported counterfeits to the stores and then selling the real bags on eBay. Winnie maintains that it’s a victimless crime: “Those luxury brands, they’re the villains.” As the women dart back and forth to China and Ava falls in line with Winnie’s ways of thinking (“That level of audacity, daring, nerve—well, it was intoxicating.”), the novel explores questions of status, commerce and how the two are intertwined. As Winnie notes, “A Harvard degree is not so different from a designer handbag. They both signal that you’re part of the club, they open doors.”

Chen, author of Soy Sauce for Beginners and Bury What We Cannot Take, is a versatile, savvy plotter, and Counterfeit readers will be easily drawn into this morally complicated world.

Kirstin Chen is a versatile, savvy plotter, and Counterfeit readers will be easily drawn into this morally complicated world of high-end counterfeit handbags.

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Recent Features

Maybe your perfect summer read is pure escapism, heady fun, nonstop thrills or great big heaps of feelings. Whatever your summer vibe, we’ve got a book for you.

Cat Sebastian returns to the Georgian-era setting of 2021’s The Queer Principles of Kit Webb with The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes, a charming story about two chaotic bisexuals who cross each other’s paths while pursuing their criminal endeavors.

It’s hard to be sanctimonious when you have to rely on the man blackmailing you. That’s exactly the situation Marian Hayes, the Duchess of Clare, finds herself in after shooting her husband. The only person she can think to turn to for a quick exit strategy is Rob Brooks, the cheerful highwayman and con artist who’s blackmailing her. If she could reach her own rear end, she’d kick it. And thus starts another highly enjoyable romance from Sebastian.

Sebastian’s prose is playful, and she sets a fast, jaunty pace as Marian and Rob ramble around the countryside, trying to figure out their next moves. She has a knack for making her characters relatable to modern audiences while still ensuring that they feel like people who live in 1751 and thus have to grapple with a rigid class system. Rob is an impulsive, reckless career criminal with an enviable resume of robbery, counterfeiting and horse theft. His secret is that he’s recently become the heir to a dukedom that he doesn’t want, seeing as he is firmly opposed to the aristocracy on a philosophical level. Meanwhile, the quick-witted and courageous Marian married a duke in order to ensure her family would be taken care of, but she soon learned that the price of the title was too high to pay. Unlike many historical romances, wealth never gets the characters of The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes anywhere: It never makes them happy, and it never truly changes the circumstances of their lives.

The couple’s mutual (and initially grudging, on Marian’s part) fondness morphs into a sweet romance moored by their shared practicality and humor, and by the quiet wounds of loneliness that echo in each of their hearts. Rob loves Marian almost from the beginning, and even though she struggles to open her heart in return, she always treats his love as the precious treasure that it is.

If you’re not already a fan of historical romance, you will be when you’re done reading this one.

If you're not already a fan of historical romance, you will be when you're done reading The Perfect Crimes of Marian Hayes.

Akwaeke Emezi is known for their literary flexibility, having already displayed a mastery of fiction, poetry and memoir, but You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty is a shock to the system in more ways than one. The differences between the prize-winning writer’s first romance novel and their previous work go beyond genre boundaries and readers’ expectations. 

Like Emezi’s debut, Freshwater (2018), and their acclaimed, bestselling novel The Death of Vivek Oji (2020), You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty is a bold work of art. But while those earlier books possess what Emezi calls “a quality of the other” or “a separateness,” the author’s first romance reflects a different voice—one that is truer to their own story of love and heartbreak when they were a 20-something in New York City.

The novel follows Nigerian American artist Feyi Adekola, who’s restarting her life in Brooklyn five years after the death of her husband. As Feyi becomes romantically entangled with a man named Nasir and then with his father, a celebrity chef named Alim, she discovers the kind of healing she needs. 

Read our starred review of ‘You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty.'

The novel takes Emezi in multiple new directions. It’s light, optimistic and fun while maintaining a significant throughline of lyricism and drama. However, there’s a certain vulnerability and rebellion whenever an author flips the script on their readership. When a voice emerges that’s different from what came before, there’s a real potential for blowback. 

“I don't know if all readers are going to enjoy it suddenly being so, you know, contemporary and vulgar,” Emezi says, speaking by video call. “I think that will challenge certain readers, because I do think there’s a kind of reader—and to be very honest, I think of a white liberal reader when I think of this reader—who’s coming to the work looking for that otherness, you know, looking for something that’s a little foreign and well out of reach.” 

That’s an unsettling but not entirely unfamiliar sentiment. For some readers, stories of African spirituality set within African settings are more palatable than portraits of young queer Black women disregarding the boundaries of American propriety. “I've seen a couple of early Goodreads reviews, and some people really do not like this book,” Emezi says.

“It's not a literary novel pretending to be a romance. Like, no, I wrote it for the genre.”

A strong audience response is a hallmark of our modern interactive literary landscape, which could be intimidating to an author and consummate artist like Emezi. But despite any pre-publication speculation about the novel’s reception, the author’s enthusiasm and fighting spirit are unmistakable. Emezi is clearly up for the challenge, with an attitude that’s more “bring it on” than nervous. 

As Emezi ruminates on the topography of the literary market, they reveal a sophisticated understanding of both their career and how genre fiction is positioned in relation to books that are considered “literary.” “I actually was a speculative fiction writer,” the author says, “but when I decided to write professionally, I had a game plan, and the game plan was to do literary fiction first, because it seemed easier to start in literary fiction and then move to other genres, rather than go in the other direction.”

Both in its own right and in the context of Emezi’s literary game plan, You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty (whose title comes from a lyric in the song “Hunger” by Florence + the Machine) is an exciting achievement that represents a particular kind of artistic freedom. And after Emezi’s most recent publishing successes, including their Stonewall Award-winning memoir, Dear Senthuran, the timing seems right for them to take this leap. Plus, many readers will relate to the author’s inclination toward lightness. Emezi has long been a romance fan, but the past few years have rendered romance’s appeal more immediate and keenly felt.

“The world is such a heavy place—always has been, but it seems to be getting heavier,” Emezi says. “I wanted to both read and write something more joyful, something that had a happy ending. And that's one of the things I love about romance, that it gives you a soft place to land.”

You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty

Make no mistake, Emezi is very clear on what kind of book they’ve written: “It's not a literary novel pretending to be a romance. Like, no, I wrote it for the genre.” They display a clear knowledge of romance conventions, readership and fan base, and they selected a publisher with a track record of embracing the popular genre. “Part of the reason why I published with Atria is because I'm not doing literary fiction. I'm doing commercial fiction,” Emezi says. “I wanted to be very firmly rooted in the genre.” This intention permeates the novel, which readers of other hardcover contemporary romances, such as Tia Williams’ bestselling Seven Days in June, will gravitate toward immediately. 

Like Williams’ novel, Emezi’s book has a sexy, glam 2000s Brooklyn vibe, and its Caribbean scenes are equally alive. Emezi has lived in both New York City and Trinidad, and while they never insert a representation of themself into their fictional narratives, this novel is clearly influenced by real life. Feyi and her best friend and roommate, Joy, are radiant. Messy, single and free, they have known loss and are trying to make the most of their time on Earth. 

“I spent my entire 20s in Brooklyn,” says the author, who is 34. “This is what we were doing. . . . We were being hoes, and we were partying, and we were having a great time.” From page one, the novel throws off the cultural constraints of a judgmental white or male gaze. Feyi and Joy consciously reject the unwritten rules of modern respectability that Black women are often expected to follow.

“I don't really get my thrills that way anymore,” Emezi says. “Now I'm like, ‘Oh, my garden.’ But back then, I would have been worse than both Feyi and Joy.”

This full-hearted and playful embrace of Black joy and romance also manifests in Feyi’s impeccable older love interest, Alim. His portrayal is one of fluid beauty and sensitivity that happily flirts with wish fulfillment. In fact, conjuring a dream man on the page complicated Emezi’s personal life during the novel’s incubation: “When I first started writing him as a character, I was dating this guy in New York. And the guy was jealous of Alim because he was like, ‘I feel like you're writing your perfect man.’ Of course I am. I absolutely am.” 

For all its lightness, the novel does pose its share of challenges, and while Emezi fiercely respects the traditions of romance, they’ve also made some provocative choices. Like many modern romances (especially ones by independently published authors), Emezi’s novel departs from the old-school concept of “there can only be one” love interest, a requirement that seems increasingly ill-suited to 21st-century relationships. Sometimes in romance novels, there is only one true love, and if you lose that one but then find someone else, there must have been something wrong with the previous experience. But both Feyi and Alim experience deep, abiding love before they meet each other, and the connection between them never calls those prior commitments into question. Feyi also sees other men before she meets her ultimate love interest, and there’s no shade in the way those sexual experiences are presented.

“I wanted to both read and write something more joyful, something that had a happy ending.”

Through the expertly crafted narrative and the way Feyi and Alim bond on so many levels, including sexually and spiritually, Emezi’s novel demonstrates that you don't have to diminish the past in order to love someone thoroughly in the present. This is a driving theme of the novel: seizing a second chance after a previous true love. It’s a motif close to Emezi’s heart. 

“I got married really, really young, when I was in my early 20s. And when that marriage ended, I was like, this is it. I'm never falling in love again. And it's odd because when you lose your first love, on one hand, it feels impossible that it can ever happen again,” they say. “On the other hand . . . once you move past the limitations of ‘it can only happen once,’ then you can use that first time to be like, well, if it happened before, it means that it’s possible for it to happen again.”

In the end, Emezi believes, it comes down to a choice: “You can either choose despair or hope, and I wanted to show both Feyi and Alim choosing hope and working their way toward it.” In this, they have certainly succeeded. The idea that love is conscious and regenerative comes through beautifully in their characters’ growth and in the relationship’s progression. The result is a gorgeous affirmation: Second chances are real, even for characters with a few scars and miles on them.

Photo of Akwaeke Emezi by Vo.

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