Right up front, though, this is a five star book for me, but probably won’t be for everyone. It just so happened to push quite a few of my personal buttons, and there were things in there that I always enjoy in stories that other people might find dull or uninteresting.
First, the cover is a bit misleading, but it doesn’t matter. There’s no one sitting on beach towels relaxing and reading books in here. Not that kind of book, not those kind of characters. Instead, what you’ve got is two authors with writer’s block living next door to each other in their beach houses, who fall into a wager that the other can’t write in the other’s genre: that Gus can’t write a romance (or more specifically, a book with a happy ending), and that January can’t write literary fiction examining the darker parts of the human condition. January is also right in the middle of dealing with some things. Her father dying the year before is what kicked off her writer’s block. She learned at his funeral that he wasn’t the man she thought he was, and suddenly found herself unable to write books like she used to, when everything in her life feels like it was a lie.
I liked pretty much everything about this book:
*The main characters, together and apart. I liked January and really felt for her the whole time. I liked how smart she was and her attitude, and I liked seeing someone like that having a really hard time, and struggling to come out the other side. The portrayal of her emotional arc felt really real to me. I also liked Gus, and his whole deal. I enjoyed the spin Henry took on a trope I usually dislike (spoilers) that was so well done I actually loved it here.
*The way the book wasn’t afraid to go into the writing aspect of it. There are some pretty in depth discussions here about why writers write, and what it’s like, and what draws different people to write different kinds of stories. I was also really gratified to see Henry (and January) tackle the sexist image of women’s fiction and romance that is unavoidable when writing and reading the books January enjoys. I also liked the way the toughness of the act of creating was portrayed. January can’t write fluffy books with happy endings anymore because the emotional foundation she used to write them has crumbled. This is the part I said some people might not like. I absolutely adore books about people working through how to do their jobs in detail, and creating art is my favorite of those types of books. I love seeing the process of it, the thinking behind it, and working through the struggles to see a piece of art come out the other side. That’s not an insignificant part of this book.
*SPOILERS My only complaint before finishing was going to be that we didn’t spend enough time on the creation of Gus’s “romance” novel, because I would have had double the pleasure. Ultimately, though, I think Henry made the right choice there. For most readers, it would have been too much. I just really wanted to watch a dude struggle through writing a romance and see that struggle. But ultimately, where both characters end up is more fitting. January creates her own version of literary fiction, where she can’t resist giving it a more upbeat ending instead of a bleak one, and where it’s clear that happiness is in her character’s future, despite hardships she’s faced in the present. And Gus’s idea of a happy ending is laughable. But it fits his character, so in the end I was satisfied END SPOILERS.
*I really liked the setting, and how Henry made it work for her. The locals didn’t just feel like kitschy throw-ins to charm you, like they can sometimes in romance. And the premise of the beach house came pre-loaded with emotional weight, because it’s not just a beach house January rents to try and overcome her writer’s block; she’s inherited it from her dead father, and being there is actually really painful, because it is a reminder of everything that is causing her life to melt down at the moment. It’s a built in part of the conflict of the story rather than pleasant but empty fluff.
*The friendship between January and her best friend Shadi felt very real to me, even though Shadi isn’t in the novel very much in terms of page-time.
*And just to emphasize, for me, the arc of the characters’ growth perfectly dovetailed with the growth of their relationship, and it didn’t feel constructed or forced like romance novel emotional problems sometimes can. (Which the novel hilariously points out at the beginning, when January is talking about how she normally writes her novels.)
I’m not sure if I will be checking out this author’s entire backlist or not, which is something I normally do when I like a book as much as I like this one, but I kind of don’t want to look the gift horse in the mouth and find out it’s just this one book I like, and not her writing in general. I don’t know, anyone read any of her other books? Any particularly good ones?
I definitely recommend this one, though, and am very glad it was a pick for Book of the Month, because I’m not sure when or if I would have ever gotten around to it otherwise.
CBR Bingo: Reader’s Choice (used in place of Music)