In defence of romance

Emily Henry’s humanisation of the genre is truly refreshing

August 27, 2023


M

odernity is a bloodhound leaving us starved, isolated and constantly fatigued; draining the essence of our being. We find ourselves in a consumerist wasteland where para-social digital interactions and an endless barrage of likes, with a shelf life based on aesthetic appeal, fail to satisfy. Instead they deepen our hunger for genuine human connection. From Blade Runner 2049 (2017) to Her (2013), we observe the commodification of love: empty, dehumanised, yet a desperate respite from the unrelenting and debilitating affliction of loneliness within a capitalist framework. In the relentless 9-5 grind, which seizes our most scarce resource – time – love becomes a transaction and a luxury.

Almost four years ago, we experienced a symptom of modernity’s infection: a pandemic that made our shared sense of alienation profoundly tangible, leaving us grappling with our nebulous existence. In 2019, Emily Henry’s abyss – manifested as a writer’s block – stemmed from political upheaval, ageing and the unsettling realisation of limited control over our lives. Silver lining came in the form of a secret pet project: a feel-good romance, eventually cheekily titled Beach Read.

After releasing Beach Read in May 2020, Henry swiftly became BookTok’s darling. Offering solace to disillusioned Gen-Zeers, her book enveloped them in a romance woven with passionate declarations, witty retorts and classic third-act conflicts, culminating in a guaranteed happy ending. Transcending the shared desire for an escape, readers found themselves captivated by Henry’s wholehearted adoption of the genre, the daunting yet profoundly tender experience of loving another conveyed in a delightfully effortless tone. This authenticity was anchored in characters that exuded humanity, complemented by Henry’s willingness to explore their abyss. What began as a typical small-town, opposites-attract romance brimming with toe-curling banter veered into a critique of the gendered devaluation of literary romance, alongside a touch of familial wounds and a death cult. Maybe it’s because Henry’s foray into Contemporary Romance wasn’t motivated by deadlines or profit equations. Instead, it was her personal getaway that infused an authentic human touch into the genre.

Admittedly, I initially dismissed Beach Read as just another formulaic romance, complete with internalised misogyny that dwells on female pain caused by a self-pitying, brooding male protagonist. Craving a Hallmark-worthy “guilty pleasure” packed with big feelings and an even bigger diversion from reality, I decided to take the plunge. At the forefront, the book follows January Andrews, a romance writer grappling with writer’s block after a breakup and her father’s passing. Penniless, she relocates to her father’s Michigan Lake house and encounters Gus Everett, a moody ex-college rival specialising in “gritty realism” and facing his own creative slump. Romance ensues when they challenge each other to swap book ideas.

From the start, I was struck by its humanisation of well-worn archetypes, as it overturns the typical first-act upheaval in January’s life – her disillusionment with all things romantic – anchored in the complexities of her fractured family ties. Memory offers no sanctuary for a wound that continues to bleed with every echo of her father’s betrayal, locked in battle with the rosy-hued memory of him. Conversely, Gus Everett’s enduring cynicism is born from a mother rendered bone-weary by an abusive relationship that drained her very life force. Amid a heartfelt, organic romance, Henry goes for the jugular: for her characters, writing entails cradling one’s wounds for tender examination. Gus, grappling with his mother’s endurance of the cycle of abuse, and January, yearning to bask in the memory of her parents’ love, once pure and untarnished.

Above all, Beach Read is Emily Henry’s defence of the modern romance novel. By embedding herself within the character of January Andrews, a female romance author, she shatters the fourth wall to counter the notion of shallowness that erodes its potential for literary appraisal, fuelled by a societal structure that condemns women for their desires:

“And then there were the people who acted like we were in on some secret joke together when, after a conversation about Art or Politics, they found out I wrote upbeat women’s fiction: Whatever pays the bills, right? They’d say, practically begging me to confirm I didn’t want to write books about women or love.”

Patriarchy suffocates women, silencing their longings until romance becomes a chore and a condition to be whole. This genre emerges as a poignant source of catharsis and empowerment, offering a canvas to explore autonomy, deeply resonating with its main readership of women and queer individuals. While Henry’s narrative falls short in terms of intersectionality or nuanced gender discourse, its raw sincerity weaves a romance that doesn’t relegate its female protagonist to a mere prop. January isn’t a guiding light for Gus’s path to self-realisation; they are two separate entities, simultaneously confronting their own selves on a shared journey of understanding and growth.

As community erodes and animosity thrives in a dog-eat-dog reality, affection comes to be perceived as an entryway for exploitation rather than a fundamental aspect of the human experience. Hence, we mock happy endings and applaud media drenched in pessimism, moral decay and isolation as a mark of its supposed realism. It prompts us to wonder how much of this so-called realism is entwined with capitalism’s reduction of life to a mechanised existence. Love, unaccounted for in the cost-benefit equation of the production chain, is labelled as wasteful, a whimsical afterthought, rendered obsolete by the system.

Thanks to BookTok, contemporary romance, with its swoon-worthy caveats that celebrate emotional openness, is experiencing a revival, free from the shame of being caught reading it. Emily Henry is steering the movement, one beloved trope at a time. In her literary multiverse, men exhibit genuine devotion and women can experience love without being defined by it.

Here, relationships thrive on mutual effort and solace in a shared existence. Love stands the test of time, avoiding suffocation or fading away like a dying ember. The novels are imbued with genuine emotion and happy endings are not just an option but a necessity.


The writer is a LUMS student