Hot Stuff: February romance novels explore finding happily-ever-afters post-trauma
February is the shortest month, but that doesn’t mean there’s any less abundance of new romance titles to enjoy. This month’s crop of titles takes readers on a series of adventures from the furthest reaches of space to the Confederate South to Victorian England.
Whether looking ahead to a futuristic setting or to the past or situating a story in the present day, romance interrogates issues of gender, romance, equality, and justice against the always potent backdrop of a love story. There is always a barrier to the ultimate happily-ever-after and this month, trauma rears its head as a potent factor — whether it’s systemic and physical or an unhealed emotional wound, these releases explore the need to heal as part of finding a happy ending. With this in mind, February’s titles offer up some great examples of the genre’s ability to deliver provocative social and cultural commentary no matter when or where the story takes place.
The Matchmaker’s List
By Sonya Lalli
Review: With The Matchmaker’s List, Sonya Lalli offers up a tale of familial pressures, cultural traditions, and self-discovery, that is equal turns heartbreaking and hilarious. Raina Anand has no choice but to give into her grandmother’s demands that she give arranged marriage — and her list of potential suitors — a try, but that doesn’t mean she has to like it. Feeling lost and hung up on a love she left behind in London, Raina flounders through a string of disappointing dates, resisting even her BFF’s attempts to set her up with a dashing sardonic friend named Asher. Things go off the rails when Raina allows her grandmother to believe she’s gay – a sin of omission that could play as tone-deaf but instead is a heartfelt symptom of just how afraid Raina is to open herself up to the possibility of a love she deserves. Truly, what single twenty-something has not contemplated telling that to overbearing relatives who just can’t understand why they don’t have a boyfriend? Lalli gives the lie due service, forcing Raina to examine the experiences she’s appropriating in the face of the very real trauma (and in some places, life-or-death stakes) that those who are actually gay must face. The deception simmers with as much uneasy tension on the page as it might sit with the reader. Alongside this, Lalli also offers up a tender tale of familial ties and devotion – Raina’s actions are purely driven by her single-minded desire to avoid disappointing her Nani. It’s a welcome breath of fresh air when it comes to romances that tackle the parameters of modern arranged marriage. Lalli tears down stereotypes with humor and warmth, while also wryly chastising her community for their tendency to be mired in the past. Change, especially when it comes to tradition, is hard-won, but Lalli shows one way toward it in fits and starts with a love story that is ultimately more about coming to terms with oneself. Raina must learn that self-love and making peace with your past and the sins of your parents are the surest way to find a happily-ever-after, a lesson that feels all the more poignant when delivered within Lalli’s tale of bucking cultural expectations.
By Lisa Kleypas
Review: Historical romance goddess Lisa Kleypas lets worlds collide with her newest entry in the Ravenels series, bringing the characters of her Wallflowers series, specifically fan favorite Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, back to play. Our heroine, Phoebe, Lord Clare is Sebastian’s daughter, a strong-willed, kind-hearted widow who is still reeling from the death of her invalid husband. When she meets notorious reformed rake West Ravenel, she immediately dislikes him, remembering he was the bully who tortured her departed husband in boarding school. But sparks fly almost instantly as the two find they can’t keep their hands off each other. Kleypas has crafted a beautiful love story that is all about two characters finding their way out of darkness long enough to cling to the light in each other. Phoebe must overcome her grief and her promises to the first man she loved, while West has to forgive himself for the sins of his past. There is nothing more rewarding in a romance than two characters learning to come into their own via the power of their love. Phoebe’s journey from grieving, detached heiress to a woman invested in not only her children’s future, but her estate’s workings as a whole is a breathtaking story of a woman discovering her own power. Kleypas’ entire Ravenels series has focused on women who buck tradition to embrace careers and interests that their era might define as quirky at best and unnatural at worst. It still feels shockingly potent to see a man love a woman for her ambition, not in spite of it, and this is an area where Kleypas excels. Where Phoebe is brave and earnest, West is compassionate and kind behind his reformed bad-boy exterior. It’s thrilling to watch him exhibit a fierce tenderness in the bedroom that carries over to his gentle playfulness and affection with Phoebe’s children. Is there anything more irresistible than a man duly versed in the bedroom and the nursery? Kleypas hits all the right notes when it comes to her heroes. Though West, to us and Phoebe, is a paragon of enlightened masculinity, Kleypas also paints his sense of being haunted by his past in a way that feels vulnerable and believable rather than purely for the sake of angst. When it comes to its literary merits, this novel is a work of art. Kleypas’ prose is intoxicatingly gorgeous, as lush and romantic as the circumstances of her stories. So often, I found myself turning down a page if only for the joy of returning to a metaphor that left me breathless or a turn of phrase that made me smile for its sheer cleverness and beauty. It’s a heavy chink in the tired argument that romance novels are neither well-written nor worthy of literary accolades. It’s often said that you can never go wrong with a Lisa Kleypas book, and Devil’s Daughter does much to maintain that aphorism.
An Unconditional Freedom
By Alyssa Cole
Review: We’ve probably featured Alyssa Cole in this column more than any other author, and it’s partly because her writing is so superb and partly because the stories she is telling are exemplary of what we feel makes modern romance writing such an essential cultural force. Her latest, An Unconditional Freedom, is a searing look at the deeply felt scars, visible and invisible, of slavery and how trauma shapes our lives but should not come to define it. The novel is the third and final entry in Cole’s wondrous Loyal League series, a trio of historical romances that throw the wealthy ballrooms popular in the sub-genre out the window in favor of a high-stakes, visceral trilogy of love found amidst the stresses of those working to bring down the Confederacy as undercover detectives.
An Unconditional Freedom traces the slow-burn love story of Daniel Cumberland and Janeta Sanchez, two unlikely allies who both have plenty of secrets. Daniel was once an idealistic free-man studying to become a lawyer, but when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery, his experiences left him with a trauma he has been unable to heal. Cuban-born Janeta Sanchez has infiltrated the Loyal League to spy for the Sons of the Confederacy, not fully realizing the horrors of the systems she’s helping to prop up until being forced to confront it. While Daniel struggles to regain any sense of the spirit his enslavement crushed out of him, Janeta wrestles with her secret and where her loyalties should truly lie. The two circle around their attraction for each other while on a collision course toward a potentially disastrous assassination plot. Each of Cole’s books in this series have dealt with the lasting trauma of slavery, outlining both its outrageously cruel horrors and the equally as oppressive quieter dehumanizing indignities. But with An Unconditional Freedom, she goes full-bore into the generational trauma of the institution, the falsehoods of the Confederacy in their attempts to prop up a system built on the lie of white supremacy, and the immense effort it can take to heal from this. The systemic racial inequities and myths of white supremacy that still plague America today are outlined in unflinching detail. Cole tells a story that is utterly relevant to the America we live in today by examining the realities of an America past.
While the realities of war and suffering were always a key part of this series, here more than ever, Cole writes fiercely and bravely of trauma — of the toll it can take on the psyche and the challenge of fomenting any meaningful human connection when one feels completely broken inside. The novel is a love story, yes, but more powerfully, it’s an unflinching look at PTSD and the potent cocktail of guilt, terror, and self-loathing that can accompany it. An Unconditional Freedom is not an easy read, but it’s a necessary one. Near the end of the novel, one of the characters speaks to the importance of finding joy in small victories and letting a personal happily-ever-after be a revolutionary act in its own right. This entire series has been a testament to that sentiment, and Cole ends things with her most powerful novel yet. For her characters, trauma is an unavoidable part of their lives. But love, compassion, decency, and hope can pull us out of the gloom to a hard-won happily-ever-after, a bright light in the darkness. In a world that can feel designed to crush our spirits, there’s no message that feels more essential, inspiring or provocative than choosing happiness and love in the face of inexorable despair.
By Penny Reid
Review: Penny Reid’s first entry in her new “Laws of Physics” trilogy is a laugh-out-loud delight that blends its quirky sense of humor with a heartfelt examination of the cost of trauma. Mona is an extremely intelligent young woman, a scientist who graduated from college at only 17. But she has to take on the identity of her seemingly vapid twin sister Lisa when Lisa ends up in jail and needs Mona to help hide this fact from the world. Disguised as Lisa, Mona enters a different kind of arrest, living in her family home under the watchful eye of her brother’s hunky musician best friend Abram. Reid crafts electric chemistry between her two leads, each raise of an eyebrow or chocolate cake donut fight crackling across the page. She has a natural, easy humor in her writing. Mona’s frank, very pragmatic view of life results in a dry inner monologue that feels both so pointedly true and simultaneously hilarious you’ll be laughing out loud. There’s something so refreshing to characters who call it like it is, even if it sometimes bucks the norms of social niceties. Reid counterbalances this sardonic wit with Mona’s trauma, a sexual assault from her college days. The circumstances plumb everything from the guilt and self-loathing of these moments to women’s insistence, often at society’s behest, that their trauma is “not that bad” or that “nothing happened.” It’s so powerful to read a romance that not only tackles this issue head on, but one that is also willing to examine more insidious assaults like Christine Blasey Ford’s where the trauma is no less potent simply because certain lines weren’t fully crossed. Mona denies the impact of this assault on her life, but everyone else can see it – how she flinches at uninvited touch, how she’s maneuvered her intimacies to be rote and calculated, how she’s closed herself off. The beauty of her romance here is that it both awakens her to the impact of her experiences, while finally granting her an attraction that allows her to push through her trauma in ways she had dismissed as impossible. Part of the importance of the #MeToo movement is exposing all the ways assault and lack of consent can color our lives. It’s too easy to condemn the most monstrous assailants in black-and-white terms while turning our backs on the grey areas that should permit us to discuss consent and trauma in all its forms. As a society, we often lack the compassion and nuance to have these conversations – sometimes it requires the tools of fiction to truly get into the nitty-gritty. The novel is the first in a trilogy and as such ends on an abrupt cliffhanger, so readers should know that going in. There are some passages, as Mona makes assumptions about her sister and her vapid make-up and hair-obsessed life, that unfortunately feel like an indictment of hyper-femininity, assuming there can be no substance there. However, Mona’s gradual warming to her ex-friend Gabby and her Lisa-fied appearance suggest that Reid’s ultimate aims are to subvert those stereotypes and assumptions as the series continues. With her first book in the trilogy, Reid offers a funny and impactful entry that will leave you hankering for what comes next.
By Jessie Mihalik
Review: 2019 is already shaping up to be a great year for sci-fi romance (something we haven’t seen too much of from non-indie publishers recently) with last month’s fantastic Nightchaser by Amanda Bouchet and now February’s Polaris Rising. The book is so heavy on the sci-fi and adventure components, in fact, that it’s published by Harper Voyager, a sci-fi fantasy imprint — but its core tale of the explosive chemistry between an on-the-run space princess and the dangerous outlaw she encounters is pure romance. Ada von Hasenburg is the daughter of a High House, one of three royal families who comprise the Royal Consortium, the galaxy’s ruling body in Mihalik’s carefully crafted universe. When Ada’s thrown into a prison cell with Marcus Loch, also known as the Devil of Fornax Zero, she’s certain her luck has run out – until she sparks an unexpected connection with Loch and the two plot an escape plan that sends them bouncing around the galaxy in their hunt for freedom and justice. Mihalik offers readers an adventure that moves at a hyperspeed pace befitting its galactic setting. Loch and Ada build a fragile trust that explodes into sexual chemistry in the few moments they can steal when not being pursued by ruthless military forces and greedy royal leaders. Ada is a badass space princess of the highest order, equally lethal with a blaster as she is with political maneuvering. Her steely manipulations and pragmatic approach to her problems are counterbalanced by her generous heart and compassionate nature, leading her to offer support to the most vulnerable in the galaxy. You’ll be breathless from the pace at which she jumps from one adventure to another, capable and confident in her ability to elude any scrape to fight for what she believes in. She’s buoyed by a rich cast of supporting characters, including Ada’s emotionally sensitive, intelligent sister Bianca; roguish smuggler/magnate Rhys; and illegal purveyor of goods turned loyal crew member Veronica. When it comes, the romance is electric, singing the pages it fills – but Ada and Loch’s connection feels very physical, their high stakes situation not leaving a lot of time for emotional heart-to-hearts. Indeed, Mihalik purposely writes both Loch and Ada as more closed-off beings by nature, individuals who struggle to express their feelings and work through flares of jealousy and self-doubt. This can make the romance feel slightly less engaging than the action sequences, as one can struggle to see what their connection is beyond loyalty and lust. Still, Mihalik has kicked off a thrilling trilogy with complex, dynamic, fascinating women at its core – and even if the romance angle falters at times, this rollercoaster tale of betrayal, honor, and political gamesmanship is an intoxicating journey through the galaxy.
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