In romances — whether on the page or the screen — we want characters with chemistry, who spark and combust from the meet-cute to the inevitable seduction to the dawning realization that despite their wisest intentions, characters have fallen irrevocably in love.
But look at that list again, and you’ll notice we go from one state of being to another. “Intrigued by” becomes “infatuated with” becomes “devoted to.” The more romance I read, the more I think chemistry is a misleading metaphor. What we’re really looking for is alchemy. Transmutation — the magic by which an ordinary thing becomes extraordinary. And this month’s romances are bursting with it.
The rake-and-debutante pairing is a classic for a reason, and there are few things I love better than a classic finessed by an expert. In Eva Leigh’s ebullient HOW THE WALLFLOWER WAS WON (Avon, 366 pp., paperback, $8.99), Finn Ransome, our rake, has developed his flirtatious persona to compensate for what modern readers would call dyslexia. It’s also why he discounts his attraction to our bluestocking debutante, Miss Tabitha Seaton: What would a brilliant, bookish woman ever see in someone with his struggles?
Tabitha has given up on husband-hunting in favor of courting a spot in a prestigious intellectual society, only to discover they won’t admit her unless she’s married. Finn offers to arrange a match with his wounded bear of a friend, who also needs a quick wedding, but soon Tabitha begins to think considerate, affable Finn himself is a far better prospect.
In Leigh’s romances, even when I can see the gears moving, the machinery still works. I get that telltale swoop in the belly every time, watching her characters go through the dance steps. Partly it’s because they’re so generously, unabashedly sexy.
Partly, too, because Leigh’s books ask things of the reader that few romances do. Many’s the novel where past leads show up in the final chapters — for the same reason the whole cast gathers onstage at the end of a Broadway musical — but here that particular set piece is leveraged as a pointed call to destabilize the status quo. It feels as though not only the characters but also the readers are being asked to exercise courage. Not the full Cat Sebastian “be gay, do crimes” approach, but not far off.
Finn and Tabitha are disappointed by London society — but in Mimi Matthews’s THE BELLE OF BELGRAVE SQUARE (Berkley, 400 pp., paperback, $16), aristocratic life has become shiveringly Gothic. For Julia Wychwood, an heiress with severe anxiety and a pair of cruel, illness-obsessed parents, London is a nightmare of surveillance, gaslighting and medical abuse. Novels are her only vehicle of escape, so when the scarred, stoic Crimean War hero Captain Blunt offers her a chance to elope to his dilapidated Yorkshire mansion with a graveyard in the garden and a trio of traumatized children, Julia seizes it.
Of course there are sinister rumors about her new husband. A locked room she is forbidden to enter, a woman’s grave, too many unanswered questions about his past. The astute reader will unravel many of the knots early, but that’s part of the fun. Watching Julia blossom away from prying eyes is almost as satisfying as seeing Jasper Blunt pine for her from nearly the first page — there are other heiresses he could be pursuing, but the secret romantic in him will not let Julia go. For best effect, save this one for a windy night when trees scrape against the windowpanes.
For the opposite of Gothic, I recommend Jackie Lau’s contemporary rom-com THE STAND-UP GROOMSMAN (Berkley, 354 pp., paperback, $17).
Vivian Liao loved the sitcom actor and stand-up comedian Melvin Lee — until she met him. Now they can’t go a single conversation without bickering, which is a problem since they’re both in the bridal party for their best friends’ wedding. Mel and Viv agree to be civil to each other; soon civil becomes cordial becomes captivated. Next thing you know they’re texting each other restaurant tips, kissing underneath the banquet tables and slipping off to hotel rooms with comfy beds and sheet cakes. It’s a wonderful fling, but can it survive long distance and the differences between them?
This book is a low-angst charmer. Lau’s books have some of the best effort-to-emotional-payoff ratios in romance, and that’s even before we get into Mel’s buoyant stand-up routines. Vivian, too, is a unique heroine: Burdened with too much responsibility at a young age, she is wary of being pushed into a caretaker role when she’s still learning to hold her own desires paramount.
This is my favorite of Lau’s yet — with much love to the previous titleholder, “Man vs. Durian” — and, as always, it’s full of delicious food descriptions, delicate emotional landscapes and families who show affection by being relentlessly annoying. All the more relatable for being nuanced and a little messy, the ending avoids forcing its main pair into easy answers or pat solutions.
Finally, we have Freya Marske’s A RESTLESS TRUTH (Tordotcom, 400 pp., $27.99). A much-anticipated follow-up to last year’s “A Marvellous Light,” it is a Sapphic shipboard mystery set in a world where aristocracy, magic and murder overlap on pretty nearly every page.
Maud Blyth has boarded the cruise shipLyric under a false name and with a secret mission: to escort the keeper of a powerful magical artifact to the safety of Maud’s sorcerer brother in England. Two other artifact keepers have been recently murdered, and Maud is hoping her youth and relative anonymity will help deflect any sinister attention during the crossing.
When the keeper is killed and the artifact stolen on the first night out of harbor, Maud knows two things: one, that the murderer must be somewhere on the ship, and two, her best bet is to steal the artifact back before they reach land again.
Fortunately, Maud’s brother has given her sketches of his prophetic visions. A face on one page leaps out at her — a lovely blond woman — so when Maud spots her in the dining quarters, she impulsively introduces herself.
Violet Debenham is a music-hall-actress-turned-heiress, and a gifted magician to boot. She’s tickled pink to kill travel time by solving a murder — but is far too world-weary and cynical to let a naïve, earnest girl’s moral compass pull her off course. At least, not before the ghost, the jewelry thief and the suitcase of pornography come into play.
Some books make you think; others make you gasp; and a few feel as if they were written as a gift to you, specifically. This book is all three: a breathtaking romp of a plot, prose as sparkling and luxuriant as a diamond sautoir, and at the heart of it all a sense of wondrous possibility I wish I could go back and offer to my younger self. The magic system, the time pressure, the sumptuous heat of it all — Marske makes her ship a crucible, leaving the reader with a lovely, golden glow to light this waning season.