Reviews: Beach Read and The Gifts of Reading

Here are a couple of bookish books I’ve read recently! Emily Henry’s new romance novel Beach Read was my BOTM pick for April- it’s been a popular release this spring that helped pull me out of a reading slump! Also meant to help with the slump, I’ve been saving Robert Macfarlane’s charming little personal essay, The Gifts of Reading, for a moment I needed a pick-me-up; it’s a tiny little booklet of just 34 pages, but heartwarming and inspiring in spite of its size.

beachreadEmily Henry’s Beach Read is a romance novel in which a romance novelist (January) and a literary fiction writer (Gus) meet again a few years after their college writing class days. Suddenly the two are neighbors, and after being thrown together by the town’s bookshop owner they strike up a competitive friendship and challenge each other to swap genres for the summer. Meanwhile, both are dealing with trauma from their pasts, and use their writing and each other to work through what’s bothering them- which of course brings them even closer together.

“As different as I’d thought we were, it felt a little bit like Gus and I were two aliens who’d stumbled onto each other on Earth only to discover we shared a native language.”

Romance is the only genre in which the reader generally knows exactly how the book will end as soon as the characters are properly introduced- if not before. As someone who doesn’t typically enjoy predictability in any book, what makes a romance novel work for me is a convincing emotional journey- and this is where Beach Read excels. Considerably heavier than most of the romances I’ve read, the main characters in this novel are carrying some serious baggage; there is of course comedic relief and plenty of lighter moments, but even when things are good for January and Gus their hardships are never dismissed to make way for the steamy scenes, but rather become something for the two of them to work through together.

I actually don’t always like bookish books- author name dropping and stories within stories and references to people reading need to provide something to the book beyond cuteness to feel effective; lucky for me, Henry seems to get that, and doesn’t spend a lot of page time dwelling on what her characters are reading and writing. She uses these tactics only where they add something to the plot or characterization rather than letting the focus shift away from the emotional work her characters are putting into their writing and their relationship. Beach Read does include some commentary on romance being just as worthy a genre as literary fiction, though it feels more personal than philosophical because the antagonism is presented through characters who essentially embody their respective genres.

“I know how to tell a story, Gus, and I know how to string a sentence together. If you swapped out all of my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what you’d get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone, but somehow by being a woman who writes about women, I’ve eliminated half the Earth’s population from my potential readers, and you know what? I don’t feel ashamed of that. I feel pissed.”

But there were a few details that made the overall effect less effective for me, despite my enthusiasm for the broader strokes.

First, neither of these characters ever asks for consent. This is something I always look for in romance novels, and even though both main characters seemed very self-aware, very considerate, and very attuned to the other’s body language, I can’t help feeling dissatisfied when in 350 pages of romance no consent is asked or given. Bonus points for proper condom usage, but that’s not quite enough to make up for it. Consent is sexy.

Second, and this is certainly subjective, the steamy scenes did not work for me at all. There was a lot of moving around and changing positions that I found overly elaborate and a bit hard to follow, but mainly those scenes just felt a lot less emotionally charged to me than earlier angst in the smaller touches. The language used to describe their more erotic encounters just did nothing for me, which isn’t to say they won’t work better for others.

Third, a lot of Beach Read‘s emotion is driven by miscommunication and lack of communication, which is a peeve of mine. This is an enemies-to-lovers romance, in which the characters are only enemies because they’re misconstruing and making assumptions. Additionally, the MC has some intense family drama going on- a distant mother, a dead father, his all-too-present lover nearby. (None of these are spoilers, they’re all introduced very early as part of the set-up.) While it’s reasonable to misunderstand what another person is doing and to avoid uncomfortable conversations, it frustrates me as a reader when an honest chat or two would essentially solve 300 pages of tension.

Ultimately, I loved the attempt and most of the details but just wasn’t quite swept away by the whole. I liked that Henry made the effort to do something different with this romance; everything about it is a little unexpected- a “beach read” set in flyover country, a romance featuring a lot of death (and a cult!), a romance novelist writing a literary circus tragedy, etc. It should have been the perfect formula to win me over, especially as it leans slightly literary. I like Henry’s writing, and have enjoyed her work in the past as well, but both books of hers that I’ve read now have left me feeling that one of her books might end up being a favorite for me, though this just isn’t it. Maybe my ideal Emily Henry book hasn’t been written yet. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Don’t be fooled- I had a great time with this one and it was perfect for my mood this month. I just don’t think it will be very memorable for me long-term, even though… it could have been.

 

thegiftsofreadingNext, I picked up Robert Macfarlane’s The Gifts of Reading, which was very thoughtfully gifted to me last year! This little nonfiction piece shares some of Macfarlane’s experiences with being gifted certain books throughout his life, and books he likes to give as gifts.

Macfarlane never quite comes out to say that we should gift books more often, but that is certainly the spirit of the piece. He effectively demonstrates that books given freely without expectation can have a profound, even life-altering effect on the reader. Most of the specific titles he mentions are books I haven’t read and don’t consider myself very interested in at this time, but I’m finding myself inspired to embrace book-gifting anew nonetheless, and perhaps to spend a little extra time with the books that others have given me over the years.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Honestly this was hard to rate, it’s so short and such a specific account of book gifting, but I did find it an enjoyable and encouraging read with an overall positive message. I have no idea who I would recommend this to- it is, perhaps, better to stumble across it without knowing too much, and simply let it take you where it will.

 

These two pieces have next to nothing in common, but both discuss books in a way that have restored some of the magic for me. I’ve been complaining about a reading slump for about a month (I swear I’ll stop now), but a little bookish reading turned out to be all I needed to kick it. What’s your favorite book about books?

 

The Literary Elephant

17 thoughts on “Reviews: Beach Read and The Gifts of Reading”

  1. I hate it when the central conflict of a novel is a miscommunication that could have been easily solved through a conversation! This seems to happen A LOT in romance/women’s fiction, and I don’t know why it’s necessary – also the related trope where the protagonist sees the love interest with another woman who is obviously his sister/friendly ex wife etc. and then refuses to talk to him!

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    1. I agree on both points! I wouldn’t count either out as irl possibilities, but when reading them it’s always so clear that the characters are just being idiots to further the plot, which is incredibly frustrating. Fortunately the miscommunication wasn’t immediately obvious in this one and it happened in the most mature and plausible way I’ve ever encountered it, but I was still disappointed when it became clear that’s what was happening. It seems like such a lazy move, in lieu of real character development!

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  2. great reviews! i’m glad to hear your criticisms of Beach Read. those all seem like things that would bother me and while i still think i’ll love it, it’s always helpful to go in with expectations adjusted! The Gifts of Reading also sounds lovely and makes me think of how i never know what to get people for gifts — but if i keep track of books i think they’ll like throughout the year, i can always give those. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I definitely still think Beach Read is a fun and easy-to-recommend book despite a few flaws, so I hope you’ll have a good time reading it! 🙂
      I try to do that as well, with book-gifting. If I save it until the last minute I blank, but keeping an eye out in advance really helps me find things that I think will fit the person’s taste and not just my own!

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  3. Great reviews! Your review of Beach Read is very well-balanced, and I agree with you about some of the more erotic scenes being hard to follow – sometimes I had to read and re-read lines to conceptualize what January and Gus were doing haha. And The Gifts of Reading sounds really nice! I’m glad that you’re out of the reading slump!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! 🙂 I’m glad I wasn’t alone in thinking those steamy scenes were unnecessarily hard to follow. I also had to reread a bit to get the logistics! Not ideal in a romance, though it was definitely still a fun read. And The Gifts of Reading was a nice little pick-me-up as well!

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  4. I’d never heard of Robert MacFarlane until The Lost Words and now he seems to be popping up all over the place! This book sounds lovely.

    I agree with you about The Beach Read. I don’t know that I ever would have picked it up if it weren’t for the current stresses of the world but it was fun overall. The consent issue hadn’t jumped out at me but I do remember feeling bored in the more romantic scenes and noticing that Gus in particular seems to respond to every intense emotion with the same swear word.

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    1. He wasn’t on my radar until Underland, but I’ve realized since then that his work has been all around and I just hadn’t noticed!

      Beach Read was absolutely still fun and a nice escape from the current situation, despite not being a perfect read! I’ve liked Emily Henry’s writing in the past and I do like a good romance novel every now and then so I was always bound to pick this one up I think, but was sad not to find it quite as exciting as I’d hoped. Of all the details you expect might be boring in a romance, the steamy scenes are not usually on the list! And yes, I noticed that about Gus as well!

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  5. You had me at “cult” and “literary circus,” lol. I know some readers like immersive sex scenes, but I find myself more emotionally involved if the narrator reflects on them rather than describes them as they happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some of the details were so unexpected and interesting! It was such a shame that for a romance those steamy scenes ended up being one of the least exciting pieces of the story. I don’t usually mind the descriptions, but I definitely appreciate the emotional implications being the focus- the words don’t usually do it for me on their own. Unfortunately those scenes weren’t where the emotional payoff was for me in this book!

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    1. I hope you’ll have a better time with this one! The miscommunication issue was woven into the story pretty well, it didn’t really bother me until the end and felt as natural as I think that trope can. It was definitely still a fun read even though I had some quibbles!

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