The Dead Romantics
Is romance dead? asks YA author Ashley Poston’s début adult contemporary/paranormal romance. That’s a complicated question, but if The Dead Romantics isn’t quite a nail in the coffin, it’s certainly no help to the genre or the concept of romance as a whole.
Florence Day has sworn off love, which currently threatens her financial life more than her personal one. As the ghostwriter for Ann Nichols, a famous romance author (and just about the only fictional one in a novel that name-checks Julia Quinn, Sally Thorne, Nora Roberts & Casey McQuiston), she has enjoyed more success than she ever did as the author of one novel that sunk like a stone a few years back. She also can see and converse with ghosts. Now, post break-up from a guy who wrote a book about her paranormal abilities (which she revealed to him in the form of a story of hers, not as actual fact) and her funeral-home-owning family, she’s behind on her deadline and shows up to meet her new editor, Benji Andor, but finds no reprieve in his brown eyes, which Florence describes as “like melty Hershey’s Kisses on like the worst day of your period.” All of these problems are soon overshadowed by the death of her beloved, indulgent father, and Florence heads home to South Carolina, only to discover that she’s haunted again: by Benji, who got hit by a car shortly after she left.
Reading a romance with a miserable protagonist is like getting marooned on a beautiful island with a defeatist companion. Florence is supposedly a writer whose “words . . . could wake the dead” (per her father – and we know how trustworthy parental opinion is in creative matters), and, according to Benji, her “imagination has been praised as ‘illuminating’ and ‘masterful’.” The story, which is told entirely in Florence’s first-person PoV, gives no evidence that any of those things are true. The lavish praise heaped upon her only draws attention to the writing’s abundant averageness and the fact that the story is a romance which is familiar in a casually dull rather than a comforting way. Florence is a character who cannot find joy in a life that features a supportive family, a loving best friend, and a job that a million people dream of in vain. She – with the endorsement of others – continually blames everyone from her ex-boyfriend to her publisher for her failures in life, and is consistently portrayed as a victim of her own good-hearted selflessness. A culminating event in her character arc is committing physical assault: she punches her ex in the face and reflects only that “It felt good, and he deserved it”.
Benji is an apparition before he’s even dead, not so much The One in Florence’s life as One of Many, jostling for primacy with her father and ex-boyfriend. He appears almost nowhere in the first quarter of the story except for one wildly unearned kiss. The paranormal twist to the narrative takes far too long to come, and when it does, is like a good line in a play that is trampled in the delivery. The story barely grazes the warm heat rating, and never explores the potential of how partners might enjoy sexual/sensual expression with each other without the tool of physical touch.
If romance is dead, The Dead Romantics won’t raise it, and might actually send it spinning in its grave.