Romance is often criticized for being repetitive — as if repetition is not the way human bodies and souls are nourished. Meals are repetitive: You have to keep making them and eating them and then making and eating them again. Song lyrics repeat every time a chorus comes back around. And when you love someone you don’t tell them once and then never speak of it again. You tell them over and over, because each iteration of those three words sustains their truth — like fresh water soaking into the roots of a living tree.
So it is one of the genre’s great pleasures to find rewarding books that resemble one another, with similar archetypes, similar settings, similar tropes, similar tones. This month’s books echoed other books I’ve loved before. Not because they are shallow copies, but because they offer a piping-hot version of a recipe that readers are perpetually hungry for.
We start with Jane Igharo’s WHERE WE END AND BEGIN (Berkley, 311 pp., paperback, $17), which is romance at its melodramatic heights. Fans of Sonali Dev and Helen Hoang will find this just their style.
Nigerian-born Dunni has fulfilled all her parents’ expectations: She’s an accomplished geneticist in Seattle, engaged to a safe and respectable man. But a return to Nigeria for a friend’s wedding brings her face to face with Obinna, the man she left behind years ago. Their love burned fast and hot once upon a time, and smoldering embers are quick to reignite — but old secrets and resentments threaten to extinguish any hope of a future.
Romance is marked by the certainty of the happy ending. Igharo’s novel plays fast and loose with this as the plot weaves backward and forward in time. Other stories impinge: Austen novels, Nollywood films, cultural myths, Afropop lyrics. Dunni and Obinna make and unmake choices a thousand times, their union waxing and waning as they fight with and for each other.
That promised happy ending flickers in and out of view as the two timelines careen forward: one toward catastrophe, and one away from it. The catastrophe itself remains a secret for most of the novel, even from the reader — a classic soap-opera move but rather unusual in romance, which prefers to give the reader full context to better twist the emotional knife. The effect is a shock, and one I am loath to spoil.
For more high-intensity drama in contemporary romance, you can’t go wrong with a restaurant setting. Food, feelings, knives and fire! Which is to say: Kitchen-centered romances are great at exploring more than one kind of appetite, and Ruby Barrett’s THE ROMANCE RECIPE (Carina Press, 282 pp., paperback, $15.99) stands alongside favorites like Alexis Hall’s “Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake” and Solace Ames’s erotic romance gem “The Submission Gift.”
Sophie Brunet is fresh off a cooking competition show she didn’t win, and fresh out of an engagement to a man who reacted poorly when she told him she was bi. Desperate to escape the limelight, she accepts the head chef job at a Boston restaurant — but she’d be enjoying it a lot more if her boss were less of a control freak (and less distractingly hot).
Amy Chambers has always had to be the strong one. When her father left, when her mother died, when she decided her restaurant would pay cooks and servers a living wage no matter what. Hiring a famous TV chef and applying for a new reality series with a cash prize is a last-ditch effort to get her restaurant out of the red. Her crush on Sophie was easy to ignore when it happened across the distance of a television screen — but performance pressure and close quarters have a way of turning up the heat.
The feelings in this one are dialed up so high you almost can’t look at them directly: It would be like staring into the sun. Such a style can drift into self-indulgence if the author’s voice isn’t strong enough to carry it — fortunately, Barrett’s wry, lightly bitter tone is a perfect complement to that rich, heavy angst.
Sophie’s soft yet joyful exploration of her bisexuality lightens Amy’s tragic family dynamics, and the climactic payoff feels more than usually well earned. Like Rosie Danan or Kate Clayborn, Barrett has a way of making palpable the full journey of a relationship: It’s not just two hot bodies being hot in proximity to each other — though the sex scenes are definitely spicy! — but two distinct lives growing toward a shared future.
We find more opposites-attract fun in FROM BAD TO CURSED (Jove, 314 pp., paperback, $15.99), the second of Lana Harper’s small-town paranormal romances. Forget your teenage magic schools — I yearn to visit a witch-themed bar with artisanal cocktails, ghostly guests and opinionated magical trees.
Isidora Avramov delights in her family’s demon-summoning, ectoplasm-manipulating, ghost-communicating death magic. But when someone uses an heirloom Avramov curse to attack one of the witches of the rival Thorn family, Isidora is determined to prove it’s a frame-up job. Even if that means teaming up with her archnemesis Rowan Thorn, a too-handsome witch and veterinarian, whose empathic life-centered healing magic is as far from Issa’s as you can get.
This book puts the romance in necromancy: Issa is a sharp and impulsive narrator, and it’s wonderful to get a new angle on Thistle Grove and its history. And much as I love a tragically orphaned governess heroine, there’s always room for more “I love my family and they’re ruining my life” in romance. A mother who insists her way is the only right one, a daughter so invested in appearing strong that she hides the things she most needs help and comfort with — these are hammers to the heartstrings, and the reader reverberates in sympathy.
Paranormal romance has always been one of my favorites, and it’s been especially wonderful to see how many queer variations have appeared in this latest wave. Harper’s got her hooks in me now, along with C.L. Polk, Olivia Atwater and Freya Marske. As we move into fall and the fading of the year, we need a bit of magic to see us through.
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