We reach for romance when illness strikes, when the world weighs too heavily, when our own joy is hard to find but we need to know it’s still out there somewhere. This summer’s crop of romance novels are about squaring up to hardship and finding something better on the other side.
The keyword for Rosie Danan’s debut contemporary THE ROOMMATE (Jove, 315 pp., paper, $16) is capacity. The scandal-shy socialite Clara Wheaton insists it wasn’t bravery that led her to impulsively follow a childhood crush to the far side of the country: “Everyone had entirely the wrong idea about the capacity of Clara’s courage.”
Clara’s crush vanishes and leaves her with a strange roommate scrounged from the depths of Craigslist. Josh Conners is a popular performer in the adult entertainment industry; he’s playful and charming and has coasted through his career. As he and his strait-laced new roommate slowly fall for each other, Josh offers up what may be the most quintessentially romance-hero line I’ve ever seen: “His capacity for longing terrified him.”
It would have been so easy for a book with this premise to tip into tawdry titillation or shame. It never does. And I keep coming back to capacity, a term we use to describe the amount of space something has to grow into. “The Roommate” is a book about people expanding into their best possible selves — about embracing pleasure, loving unabashedly and fighting exploitation and small-mindedness. Warmly funny and gorgeously sexy, this porn-star romance is the most wholesome thing I’ve read in ages.
Danan’s book is about people building a new future: May Peterson’s second fantasy romance, THE IMMORTAL CITY (Carina Press, 330 pp., digital, $4.99), gives us lost souls unearthing a forgotten past. Ari is an immortal dove-soul with wings and the ability to heal. He has sold his memories to the sinister Lord Umber for reasons he cannot remember, and spends his days lurking in the statue fields where mortals come to die. When he impulsively rescues a youth named Hei, their connection begins a chain of events that unravels the city’s very existence.
Amnesia, a familiar trope in romance, becomes epic in Peterson’s hands, as befits the fantasy setting. Trust, we see, depends on memory. You can’t know someone’s a threat if you’ve forgotten what they’ve done. But remembering can be a wound — Ari’s slow piecing together of the truth brings pain even as it brings clarity and the knowledge of what it means to love someone beyond death, beyond memory, beyond time itself.
Trust and trauma are also central to Vanessa Riley’s A DUKE, THE LADY, AND A BABY (Zebra Books, 312 pp., paper, $15.95). Let’s be frank: This cover and title will mislead you. The baby in the title and those graceful silhouettes might suggest a gentle screwball comedy, perhaps one with a hilarious scene where a bath gets out of hand and someone gets splashed. You will not be expecting the lady to be a widow who escaped from Bedlam, or the duke to have lost a limb in the war, or the baby to be the heir to a fortune. This cover and title are like advertising a string quartet and then dropping “The Phantom of the Opera” on the audience’s head, chorus and chandelier and all. Personally, I was delighted: Riley is at her best when she lets her Gothic impulses out to play. This book made me wish for howling winter winds and guttering candles so I could properly appreciate the shivers. Readers on the lookout for Black or disabled characters in historical romance will not want to miss this.
There are romances with celebrities that emphasize the fame and the fortune — and then there are the (better) ones that emphasize the work. Like Anna Zabo’s Twisted Wishes series or Lucy Parker’s London Celebrities, Alexis Daria’s YOU HAD ME AT HOLA (Avon, paper, $15.99) is a story of two working actors who pour themselves into their craft: drilling lines and choreography, fine-tuning emotions, doing 17 full takes of the kissing scene.
Jasmine Lin Rodriguez, reeling from a breakup, has landed the lead in a new Latinx series for a major streaming service. Her co-star Ashton Suarez is trying to make the leap from telenovelas to Hollywood while keeping quiet the fact that he has an 8-year-old son. The hero’s secret baby (nice twist!) is a wonderful source of tension: Ashton is a busy actor but a loving father, and protecting his son gives him a reason to be wary and closed-off that’s more engaging than garden-variety alpha arrogance.
The buildup here is exquisite. Jasmine and Ashton slowly grow closer until the reader is aching for them to just go for it already. “In her, he recognized a loneliness that resonated with his own.” Swoon. A solid 7.5 on the angst scale, and an absolutely pitch-perfect summer escape.