A beach read isn’t necessarily for the beach. That’s good news for all of us who are wisely avoiding beaches this summer, because of crowds or sun exposure or excessive glare. (Seriously, beaches are the absolute worst places to read. Give me an armchair any day. But I digress.) I’m staying away from beaches, for all of those reasons, but these days I find myself needing something to read that conjures up lightness; something that takes me away from worries and lets me spend time with pleasant people falling in love.
The beach read, as I understand it, is essentially a rom-com in book form: a cheerful, probably sun-drenched tale of love, friendship, misunderstandings, great sex and good outfits. (Or good sex and great outfits, depending on the book.) To make my biases clear, I’m going to say here and now that the greatest beach read of all time is one that I read on an actual beach as an impressionable teenager: the trashily sublime “Scruples” by Judith Krantz. This book featured a character with the excellent beach-read name of Valentine O’Neill, whose fashion sense still figures in my own wardrobe choices.
It’s been a while since I dived into some beach-suitable light romance, but it’s a genre I’ve been intending to investigate — particularly since discovering, through reading a couple of Jasmine Guillory’s charming novels recently, that the romance genre is a much more contemporary and diverse world these days. Early summer 2020 seemed like just the time to immerse myself in a few new (or new-in-paperback) love stories — and there’s still time to revisit “Scruples” before frost. (No, nothing I read quite measured up. But the season is young.)
When I heard that “Sex and Vanity” by Kevin Kwan (Doubleday, $26.95) was coming out early this summer, my mood brightened considerably — Kwan, author of the “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy, writes about the foibles of the ultrarich with the slyest of wit. Here, he’s channeling E.M. Forster, if Forster were a high-end internet shopper: “Sex and Vanity” is inspired by “A Room with a View,” with its young heroine, Lucie Churchill, visiting Italy for the first time and finding — after some complications — love.
Kwan is no Forster — few novelists are — but he wisely doesn’t try to be: “Sex and Vanity” is ultralight entertainment, and reading it is like walking through a cloud of perfume: it dissipates quickly but it’s lovely while it lasts. Those who know Forster’s novel, and/or the Merchant Ivory film of it, will enjoy the parallels, and Kwan’s descriptions are often a delight: Lucie’s snobbish fiancé Cecil speaks in an accent described as “vaguely Central Texas meets Draco Malfoy meets pretentious French auctioneer”; an in-demand interior designer is especially good at “faking dog stains on old chintz … so it looks as if your Rhodesian Ridgeback has drooled all over that chaise longue for years and years.” And oh, Italy. Italy. Enough said.
Speaking of places overseas that we’re not going to this summer, two of the books I read featured handsome British princes. “The Heir Affair” by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan (Grand Central Publishing, $28) is a sequel to the authors’ previous novel “The Royal We.” Cocks and Morgan, the masterminds behind the screamingly funny fashion website Go Fug Yourself, are royal whisperers of a sort: Their first book, about an American commoner who falls for and marries a British prince, came out a year before Meghan Markle first stepped out with Prince Harry. (In the acknowledgments in “The Heir Affair,” the authors thank “the universe for giving us a royal psychic hotline.”)
It’s a little harder to get lost in “The Heir Affair,” as now-married couple Nick and Bex struggle with the reality of being royals — you can’t read it without thinking of the real thing, and the book feels overlong. But the characters remain utterly charming, particularly the young couple’s circle of friends, and the book is ultimately a sweet referendum on love’s ability to conquer all.
More unexpected, and thus fresher, is Casey McQuiston’s “Red, White & Royal Blue” (St. Martin’s, $16.99 paperback), whose premise seems to be summoning an immediate rom-com movie adaptation: Alex Claremont-Diaz, son of the president of the United States, has a bantering rivalry with England’s Prince Henry until the two, in classic fashion, fall into bed and into love. It’s a surprise for Alex, who at 21 is still figuring out his sexuality — and a surprise for his mother’s administration, who discover the secret relationship after photos are leaked.
All this makes for some energetic page-turning. Alex and Henry are, in the way of all the best rom-coms, quite winsome, and the issues they face are both universal and unique. “You at least have the option to not choose a public life eventually, but I will live and die in these palaces and this family,” says Henry (who obviously hasn’t read about Harry and Meghan in the tabloids). There’s little suspense — there wasn’t in any of the books I read — that these two will end up hand in hand, but the journey there is a sprightly one, and I particularly enjoyed the you-are-there sense of place in the White House and Kensington Palace. Bring on the movie version (it’s reportedly in early development); I’m already casting it in my head.
Fake romances are popular in beach reads: the meet-cute setup in which a couple pretends to be together for some almost-plausible reason, and then finds themselves falling in love. I read a couple of sweet variations on this theme. “Island Affair” by Priscilla Oliveras (Zebra Books, $15.95) takes place in sunny Key West, where social media influencer Sara has headed for a family vacation — but when her unreliable boyfriend Ric announces he’s not coming, Sara clamps her eyes on handsome local firefighter Luis, and asks him to pose as Ric (who her family has never met) for the week. Because this is a book and not life, Luis agrees. The prose gets a little florid for my taste — Sara’s lower lip and Luis’ torso get a lot of page time — and I would have liked to have gotten way more logistics on what exactly social media influencers do all day when they’re not vacationing with fake boyfriends. But yes, I kept reading, because I wanted that happy ending which Oliveras delivers nicely.
And “Take a Hint, Dani Brown” (Avon Books, $15.99 paperback), the latest saga of the Brown sisters from British author Talia Hibbert (“Get a Life, Chloe Brown”), introduces a wonderfully tart heroine: Danika, working on her Ph.D. on post-slavery race and gender issues in the West, who finds herself in a couple-goals hashtag situation when handsome security guard Zafir Ansari rescues her from a workplace fire drill. (He is, unbeknownst to her, a once-famous former rugby star.) Zaf is, of course, beyond adorable — he’s kind, he’s ripped and he reads romance novels in his spare time. “No one fakes relationships in real life,” he says at one point, like he was talking to me. Why it takes Dani the entire book to figure out said adorableness is beyond me — he had me at Page 11 — but I loved spending time in her world, which features a warm circle of sisters and female friends.
Finally, if you thought this roundup could resist a book that is actually called “Beach Read” (by Emily Henry; Berkley, $16 paperback), you are quite mistaken. Its premise is another that’s rom-com ready: Two writers — literary fiction author Augustus Everett, romance writer January Andrews — find themselves living in adjoining beach houses for a summer, both struggling with writer’s block. What to do? A challenge: He’ll write a romance, she’ll write a Serious American Novel, and they’ll each spend the summer schooling each other in their genres.
Even for a beach read, this feels pretty far-fetched; it feels like a lesser Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks movie that never got out of development. A discussion of Meg Ryan, however — Gus is annoyed by her face; January adores the way she pronounces “horses” during “Sleigh Ride” in “Sleepless in Seattle” — is one of the book’s funnier moments. And I appreciated January’s (excellent rom-com name, by the way) thoughts about writing romances: She loves the genre because “reading and writing it was nearly as all-consuming and transformative as actually falling in love.”
Nearly? I don’t know about that. But, six books later, I’ll say that during dark times, there’s enormous pleasure in immersing yourself in uncomplicated happy endings. May you find many of them yourself this summer, on or off the beach.