In Jenny Holiday’s Sandcastle Beach, Maya Mehta and Benjamin Lawson have a longstanding rivalry whose foundation is as sturdy as a castle made of sand. He rigs the Mermaid Queen election in her favor every year, which she supposedly hates (but secretly enjoys). She boycotts his brick oven pizza while still regularly frequenting his bar, where Ben reserves her favorite wine for her exclusively and surreptitiously slips her freebies all night long.
Watching these two find the pettiest of ways to hate on each other while sneakily admiring each other is great entertainment for their friends and the matchmaking elders who populate the small town of Moonflower Bay. It makes for a mildly frothy read, but the tensions underlying the hate side of their unacknowledged love/hate relationship might feel a bit lukewarm for connoisseurs of the enemies-to-lovers trope who prefer more heated relationships such as those depicted in Sally Thorne's The Hating Game, Jasmine Guillory's The Wedding Party or Kennedy Ryan's Hook Shot. As Maya’s brother Rohan tells her about his most recent failed relationship: “'For a massage to work, you need some pressure, you know? Some friction.'” He shrugged. “'I started to think maybe that’s true in life, too?'”
Handsome, generous and generally single Ben just isn’t particularly hateable or even rakish. He enjoys sparring with Maya but scarcely remembers how their rivalry started. He just knows that she’s been inexplicably spikey with him since she was 19. Maya’s motivations are clearer—he carelessly did her wrong years ago—but her perception of Ben is similarly cloudy and as a result, the friction on her side is fuzzy too, at least at first.
Fortunately, their initial rivalry is a prelude to a more complex, satisfying and steamy enemies-with-benefits arrangement in which hostilities are intermittently suspended for Premier League football and wine. Their slow burn gets exponentially hotter as the two become more sure of themselves, and their quick-witted banter and mutually obsessed attentiveness impressively echoes Beatrice and Benedick's dynamic in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a production of which Maya directs and stars in during the novel. When the town council announces a lucrative grant program for local entrepreneurs, placing Maya and Ben in direct competition with each other, it magnifies the stakes of their rivalry tenfold. The $100,000 prize would be life-changing for either Maya or Ben, who are both at professional crossroads. When these aspects of the story take off, their chemistry really begins to sparkle. The result is effervescent, joyous and rewarding fun.