REVIEW x 2: Beach Read by Emily Henry
Dear Emily Henry,
Your debut contemporary romance had what sounded like a fun concept and a great title, so I requested an ARC from the publisher.
January Andrews is a newly down-on-her-luck romance novelist. January’s boyfriend, Jacques, has recently dumped her, so she doesn’t have anywhere she can afford to live except for the North Bears Shore, Michigan beach house that her late father left her. The house was a love nest for her father and his mistress, Sonya, the woman with whom he cheated on January’s mother.
January has always believed in happy endings. Her parents seemed blissfully in love; her mother had triumphed over cancer. So the realization that her father betrayed her mother devastated her. The house is the last place where January wants to live. Still, she’s dead broke and has nowhere else to go.
The night January moves in, a loud party next door keeps her from sleep, so she starts out on the wrong foot with her nearest neighbor. Then she recognizes him—he is none other than Augustus “Gus” Everett, who was a couple of years ahead of her in college. January and Gus were in the same writing class, where Gus, so January thought, belittled the optimism in her writing. Gus went on to write literary novels that revolve around tragedies, while January wrote books that were happier and more fun.
Now, however, January can’t sustain her optimism and her belief in happy endings. She owes her editor a manuscript by the end of summer, but nothing she tries writing sticks. After another run-in with Gus, she makes a bet with him: if each writes in the other’s genre, the one to sell his or her book first will get book blurbs and publicity from the other. During the time they work on their novels, they will take each other on research excursions: January will show Gus how to research romances; Gus will show her how to do the same for literary fiction.
January also has another, unacknowledged purpose for being in her late father’s house. She wants to know him better, to understand what drove him, and to get the answers to the questions it is now too late to ask. Running into Sonya is almost inevitable in a town as small as North Bears Shore, but for January it is almost hurtful.
As the summer progresses, Gus and January get closer, and January begins to see that Gus isn’t the book snob she took him for. She also realizes he’s vulnerable. He had a rough childhood and more recent difficulties too. She’s attracted to him, but feels Gus isn’t one for long-term relationships. In college he had a reputation for having one-night stands and that’s not what she wants. Even after learning of her father’s betrayal, she is far too prone to falling in love to keep sex casual.
Where will January and Gus’s involvement lead? Which of them will win the bet? Will January ever get over her anger at her father, and will she get the answers she wants?
This book had some enjoyable aspects, high among them the “research” outings January planned for orienting Gus toward the romance genre—visits to a fairground, a Meg Ryan marathon at the local drive-in theater and more. These were fun and captured a lighthearted spirit that most of the novel didn’t share.
Likewise, I thought the sex scenes were well-written and hot. Physicality was described well in other parts of the book, too.
I really enjoyed some of the writerly aspects of the novel—the stuff about January’s writing process and the turns her novel-in-progress took as her concept of the project evolved.
January’s long-distance best friend, Shadi, was loveable and I would happily read a whole book about her. I was curious about Sonya and her relationship with January’s dad, so that kept me turning the pages too.
I ran into a problem that was not of the author’s making. I expected the plot to go in a certain direction. It didn’t, but I waited for the development I was anticipating and that resulted in a restlessness that was responsible for some of my boredom. Consequently, I noticed a lot of issues, both with the writing and the content.
I’ll start with the writing. Nearly every chapter ends in January having some kind of epiphany, and after a while this began to feel rote. It also made the book read less as organic and more as designed. I could see the author’s hand in these realizations.
Some of the humor was forced; for example, almost immediately after January moves into the house, her best friend Shadi asks “Is there a sex dungeon?” What good friend would do this—bring up her dad’s sex life is when January has been devastated by his cheating and is trapped in the house where it took place? It made Shadi seem insensitive.
January’s internal musings sometimes went on for so long that when someone said something afterward, it read like a non-sequitur and I had to turn back a few pages to remind myself what the character was responding to.
There were some turns of phrase I liked a lot, like “He was always leaning on something, like he couldn’t bear to hold all his own weight upright for more than a second or two. He lounged, he sprawled, he hunched and reclined. He never simply stood or sat.” And “Gus’s fingers were warm and rough, careful and light over mine, and I had to swim through a resistance pool full of thoughts like I bet scientists could exactly reconstruct him from this hand alone to get to any memory of Jacques.”
But there were some strange metaphors, too, such as “blood rushing through my ears like fire hoses,” (inept; the rushing of the blood can be likened to the rushing of water in fire hoses, but comparing it to the fire hoses themselves doesn’t make sense) and “His laugh crackled like popping oil,” (overwritten). “The sun was low on the horizon, the thin blankets of clouds streaked a pale tangerine. They looked like melted Dreamsicles floating in a sea of denim blue,” (a mixed metaphor). “I wasn’t sure what to say, and even if I had been, I wasn’t sure if my voice would come out thick and heavy, like my blood felt, or shaky and high, like my stomach did,” (overreaching—her stomach felt high?).
There was also “I sounded like a gum-popping babysitter trying to relate to her favorite Hot Divorced Dad.” That analogy was not sexy. It made me think of statutory rape, though I know that wasn’t the intended effect. Still, my least favorite sentence might have been “I’d never been good at hiding how I was feeling, especially this past year.” Putting aside the awkwardness of the phrasing, it also isn’t true—January frequently and successfully hides her feelings from Gus.
Which brings me to content, and the biggest problem I had with this book: the lack of communication between the two protagonists. January has imaginary ideas about Gus that he rarely makes an attempt to refute. She stuffs her feelings multiple times where he’s concerned as well. Rather than sharing her fears and insecurities about their growing closeness, she imagines the worst and blows small things out of proportion. This pattern continues almost until the very end, and January’s thought that “I didn’t want to be the heroine who let some silly miscommunication derail something obviously good” couldn’t change my impression that this was what she was.
Gus also assumes he knows January’s mind on occasion, but it’s more tolerable in his case because he doesn’t jump to conclusions as frequently and we aren’t in his head (the book is narrated in first person by January).
January’s flights of fearfulness also have the unfortunate effect of making her seem self-centered. She interprets some of Gus’s actions as if they pertain to her when they don’t and filters her impression of him accordingly. January starts out the novel bitter, which is totally understandable given the revelation about her father, but initially she takes her bitterness out on Gus, and that’s a lot less appealing and further contributes to an impression of self-absorption.
If January’s anxieties had been tied in with her feelings about her dad’s adultery—if that experience had shaken her trust in men—all this could have been sympathetic. But those dots were not connected.
The sex scenes and the make-out scenes were terrific, full of life and slow, sexy energy. But they didn’t mesh well with the rest because outside of these the relationship lacked chemistry.
I wanted to love Gus. There was an air of mystery about him, the kind that is seductive without intention to seduce. That was lovely, but when his layers were peeled back, he became less interesting. His backstory is shared by many romance heroes and he began to seem closer to cookie cutter as it was revealed.
While January planned research expeditions to fun, romantic places, Gus took her to research interviews he conducted to find out more about a death cult. This subplot felt as if it belonged in a different book. Certainly, this book could not do justice to the experiences of the cult’s survivors. Their trauma was treated as a springboard to January’s epiphanies and read like it was there to conveniently throw the main characters together and not because the people who had lost loved ones to the cult mattered in their own right.
I had a few more minor irritations.
January and Gus drive out past the edge of North Bears Shore to an Olive Garden where Gus plans to interview one of the former cult members. While waiting for the man at the restaurant, January and Gus both order cocktails. Since there’s only one Uber in North Bears Shore and they were on the town’s outskirts, I didn’t know how they planned to get home other than to drive under the influence.
Sonya sends January a bunch of emails that January doesn’t read; I couldn’t imagine where she’d gotten January’s email address. How January was so broke despite being a New York Times bestselling author was also not explained.
I didn’t buy the outcome of January and Gus’s bet:
The subplot about January’s dad’s history with Sonya fails in its execution. January find a letter from her father on the day she moves in but most of the summer goes by before she opens it. Given how many powerful emotions she had about her father and his affair, this read as contrived. I couldn’t believe that opening this letter wouldn’t be one of the first things she’d do after finding it.
I also had the feeling that I was supposed to have more liking for January’s father or at least a better understanding of him by the end of the book. Instead I ended up feeling that he was a prize asshole to all three of the women in his life. I closed the book liking him less than I had in the beginning, which is saying a lot. Keep in mind, readers, that cheating isn’t always a dealbreaker for me.
When I set out to write this review, I thought I’d give Beach Read a C grade, in light of the fact that my wrong supposition about where the plot was going played a role in my restlessness. But on reflection, I feel that there are enough problems with this one to warrant a lower grade of D+/C-.
PS The last scene involves a gesture some readers may not care for, so I’m including a spoiler here.