This summer I’m thinking about the “ever” part of “happily ever after.” An impossible span, considering that none of us are immortal. Romance novels are often scorned for being unrealistic — too many coincidences, too much wish fulfillment — but the most fantastical thing about the genre is how it thumbs its nose at time.
Allow me to explain using six of this summer’s new books.
First up is KD Casey’s home run of a romance, DIAMOND RING (Carina Press, e-book, $4.99). Alex Angelides and Jake Fischer are ex-teammates and ex-lovers; they found each other and lost a championship, and now they’re playing together again at the tattered end of their careers, hoping for one last chance at anything.
Michael Chabon once called baseball “nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.” That’s the Y.A. version; Casey’s book offers the wearier adult perspective: “Some things you can’t fight. Like time or baseball.” In the blink of a reader’s eye, our leads go from fresh-faced rookies to creaky veterans, and fresh fights become long-cherished grudges.
It knocked the wind out of me. Time is the enemy here, a thief who roughs you up and then jams its hands in your pockets to steal your valuables: youth, strength, achievement. But a romance anticipates its own triumph. In this genre, no matter how much our leads have lost, there’s always something wonderful ahead.
Like any Cinderella story, Adriana Herrera’s historical novel AN ISLAND PRINCESS STARTS A SCANDAL (Canary Street Press, 368 pp., paperback, $18.99) begins with a countdown clock. The Venezuelan heiress Manuela del Carmen Caceres Galvan has a few brief weeks to live her best Sapphic life in Paris before she must marry a dull man she does not love. She has mortgaged her future to support her spendthrift parents, but she’s determined to live as passionately as she can in this too-brief patch of the present.
Instead of a fairy godmother, Manuela finds a duchess, Cora, who flaunts her business acumen in banks and railway companies — for her, time is money. She lavishes both on Manuela, purchasing a strategic piece of coastline from her in exchange for not only a pile of cash, but also entree into the Paris lesbian community. With one heroine shackled to her past, and the other facing a lonely future, Herrera’s romance stands elegantly balanced on the singular moment when change is possible.
Romance’s anticipation is doubly true in historical fiction, where we know what’s coming for the world as well as for the characters. This adds urgency to questions like, Should Manuela’s land become a section of European-owned railroad track, or the woman-supporting art colony she and her grandmother planned to build? We know historical novels reflect the time of their writing as much as the time in which they’re set, and we usually take that to mean putting modern thoughts into historical heads. But what if it also means taking useful lessons from specific moments in the past? What if we — the collective we — had chosen community over capitalism, or a more authentic happiness over the tracks laid out for us by someone else?
Next up: a pair of vampire romances that could not be more different — except that both use the unreal longevity of supernatural creatures to reflect on the meaning of mortal life.
Piper J. Drake’s new paranormal, WINGS ONCE CURSED & BOUND (Sourcebook Casablanca, 304 pp., paperback, $16.99), is the story of a Thai bird-princess dancer — Peeraphan, or Punch for short — trapped in a pair of cursed shoes, and the ancient vampire, Bennett, who’s trying to break the curse.
Bennett is a wonderfully stodgy, formal vampire with a question of classic heroic angst: How do you let yourself love someone you know is going to die? He thinks of himself as immune to time in a way that Peeraphan isn’t, but that’s not true. Bennett is longer-lived, but dead in daytime. His life span is endless but interrupted, a prolonged nocturnal stutter. Peeraphan’s time is all her own — so who is really time’s victim here?
If Drake’s book is modern and action-centered, like Red Bull and vodka, Samara Breger’s stunning A LONG TIME DEAD (Bywater Books, 412 pp., paperback, $23.95) recalls a vintage wine miraculously salvaged from a shipwreck. It’s also the best Sapphic vampire book since Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 classic, “Carmilla.”
The Victorian sex worker Poppy Cavendish wakes in a cobwebbed manor to find herself a creature out of a nightmare: Her only companion, Roisin, is a traumatized, stern vampire who has firm rules about drinking from humans (never) and sleeping with Poppy (also never, she protests a little too vehemently). Poppy misses drinking ale, she misses her human friends, she misses sex — and, slowly, she learns the reasons behind what Roisin has done, and what kind of monsters really come out at night.
I had to keep putting down “A Long Time Dead” to yell about how sublime and funny it was, to dwell on the way the sleekly poetic style melted down into brutal abstraction when Poppy’s bloodlust took over.
Roisin’s anguish is the reversed image of Bennett’s: “What vital 21-year-old immortal would tie herself to the bony ghost woman that time forgot?” Vampire bodies might not decay, but time still sinks in its teeth; vampire memories here are moth-riddled, undependable things. Time makes immortals parasites upon the human world, dependents and exiles both.
Poppy and Roisin are not the only couple out of sync. Emma Barry’s FUNNY GUY (Montlake, 271 pp., paperback, $16.99), a take on comedic and romantic timing, features a city planner and an improv comedian whose pop-star ex just turned his shortcomings into a hit single.
Sam has a chip on his shoulder and a tendency toward impulsive mistakes; it has made him a star but also kept his childhood scars on full display. His best friend, Bree, is cautious and hesitant, dragging her feet when it comes to telling Sam anything: that she’s in love with him; that she has been offered a spectacular new job in another city.
The problem isn’t reconciling two sets of feelings. No, our couple struggle with finding a shared rhythm, a sense of pace for their relationship that doesn’t feel glacial by Sam’s standards or reckless by Bree’s. It’s a tug of war that would be hard for a less adept writer to pull off, but Barry’s work has always thrived on this kind of interplay. She seems to be feeling her way to a new kind of structure here, one that’s organic and messy but still generates a vital catharsis.
Speaking of new things, I’m delighted to showcase one of the year’s most charming experiments: Felicia Davin’s THE SCANDALOUS LETTERS OF V AND J (Etymon Press, e-book, $6.99). An art student and a disinherited dilettante in 19th-century Paris remake themselves, encounter sinister magical artifacts and have some of the thirstiest sex imaginable. V discovers how to use writing to persuade and compel, while J’s paintings can entrance or even transform the objects and people they depict. Gender is transcendable; bodies are fluid; art is truth, lies, a trap and an escape all at once.
It’s an epistolary novel, with our engaging young leads’ letters and diaries unspooling for our pleasure. It was also serialized, free, with daily snippets emailed out for months. Reading this way felt intimate, transgressive, like I’d started receiving someone else’s much sexier mail by accident — even as it denied the reader total voyeurism by cheekily excising the many erotic doodles J uses to tease and titillate V.
Among romance fans, the phrase “revolutionizing the romance genre” has all the heft of Mardi Gras beads — a cheap accolade thrown round the neck of someone yelling “woo!” on a tabletop while us regulars hunch over the bar and sip our trope cocktails in peace. But many romances also lock main characters’ bodies into a strict and permanent perfectibility; that’s why they give Regency dukes abs from the age of gym memberships and why couples’ cameos in late-series books often feel weirdly static and staged. Davin’s book feels genuinely, shockingly rebellious in its insistence on the beauty of transformation. If overhyped books are plastic necklaces, this serial is a string of natural pearls, each a luminous gem on its own but even more exquisite in sequence.
It’s a love story and a fantasy and a meditation on social power’s uses and abuses. And by its refusal to succumb to mundane physical laws, it underscores one of romance’s greatest magics: It allows us to escape time. Not forever, no. But for long enough.