Emily Henry’s Beach Read might, by its title, imply an easy reading experience, but it’s actually somewhat complex. I’ll start with the important stuff: yes, I liked it.
January Andrews, a women’s fiction writer, is spending her summer at a beach house which was bestowed upon her at her married father’s funeral by his lover –an unhappy surprise, needless to say. She’s trying to write her fourth book, but her heart isn’t in it, which is a problem because her books are all about hearts in love. One evening, she discovers that her next door neighbor is Augustus – Gus – Everett, a successful literary fiction author she happened to have a thing for in college. They make a deal: trade their genres and literary demographics and the winner is “whoever sells their book first”. I was wildly excited with this premise. If you can’t imagine enjoying this book without it sticking to that idea, don’t bother reading it. If you’re open to a book that basically ignores its own premise and still manages to be good, allow me to make my case.
This is a book about two loves: one is romantic – the love between January and Gus. The other is the love between a writer and the craft of writing. I enjoy books by authors about writing (like Stephen King’s On Writing) and I definitely felt the palpable excitement of the act of creating in this book (which is funny because Henry includes an author’s note of sorts saying “The summer I wrote Beach Read, I was feeling absolutely sapped of energy and inspiration”). Beach Read is intelligent and intentional – you could analyze every creative choice and find a smart reason behind it that comments on writing, romance, etc. The book itself is a hybrid of the genres written by the two main characters. Henry generally follows the romance format, but mixes in the drama and ambiguity of literary fiction and women’s fiction.
I had two issues with this novel. Henry wrote a love story I really liked – the chemistry is phenomenal (January has a dream about Gus and I had a dream about this book after I read it) – but then does a late reveal that our hero isn’t quite as available as he initially appears, which taints everything that came before it and was absolutely unnecessary. I also felt somewhat conned – I would have loved to see a romance written by a man, but we get none of Gus’s manuscript. We get excerpts from January’s book (it’s essentially a really messed up The Night Circus) but not of Gus’s. And he doesn’t even actually “write a happily ever after”! He writes a book about a cult with an ending that would blow up the comments section of a review here at AAR. Plus, Beach Read is entirely told in first person perspective by January, when a dual perspective would have been a perfect fit for a story that is defined by duality of characters and genres.
Both main characters have had childhoods that stretched the limits of what a child should have to endure. Gus’s background involves abuse from his father, and January grew up with a mother fighting cancer. Gus’s character is depicted as one of those ‘externally a rock, internally a cinnamon roll’ sorts, but I didn’t feel entirely convinced at the late revelation of his motivations and fears, which all work to portray him as more vulnerable. I had to warm up to January – I’ve never been charmed by main characters who first appear before me ill-dressed and ready to get liquored up, as January does. That said, she gets it together enough to be an entirely adequate heroine.
I learned before starting Beach Read that this was Henry’s first book outside of the young adult genre, and according to the internet it looks like she’s contracted for another adult fiction work. I am not a regular reader of YA, but I can say that nothing about the style of the book made me think Henry wasn’t comfortable writing for adults. Beach Read reads like all the other romance and women’s fiction I’ve encountered, and it was on par with the better books in those genres I’ve read recently.