Tough times have a way of isolating a person, and while you’re living through them, sometimes you need a story that helps you back into the wider world. Romance novels do that. In their pages, you can find connection — even when it’s hard to do in real life.
Connection is lifesaving in Tia Williams’s new novel, A LOVE SONG FOR RICKI WILDE (Grand Central, 342 pp., $29). Ricki, in 2024, has left her job at her tyrannical family’s chain of funeral parlors and started a flower shop in a Harlem brownstone. Ezra, in 1924, has fled the racist violence of his hometown and is making a name for himself as a musician in the speakeasies of the Harlem Renaissance.
And then their lives begin to overlap.
Ricki has come to the city in pursuit of life, and Ezra has been fleeing death — a little too successfully, it turns out, because this is not a time-slip story. He has, through a curse, become immortal. His immortality is a kind of haunting, of being trapped in the world but apart from it: People forget him entirely within a month if he doesn’t keep in contact.
Even worse, Ezra’s cursed love for Ricki will mean her death — and it might already be too late.
The book’s calculus of love and loss is brutal, and grounds the dazzling prose and light magical element.
In Allison Saft’s A FRAGILE ENCHANTMENT (Wednesday Books, 373 pp., $17.99), it feels as if all of the characters have something they’re desperate to escape from. Our heroine, Niamh Ó Conchobhair, is a maker of enchanted clothing from a fantasy version of Ireland. Summoned to the court of Avaland, her people’s conquerors, she hopes that making wedding coats and cloaks for the prince regent’s younger brother will be a path out of poverty for herself and her family.
Kit, the groom, is blunt and embittered — literally prickly when his flower magic gets away from him — and it’s clear he is being dragged into marriage against his will. Niamh resents her instant attraction to someone so unavailable and irritating. Between the political prejudice against her people and the chronic illness she knows will kill her someday, she is convinced there is no room for love in her life.
The plot, like the prince, delights in proving Niamh wrong. Saft layers the tensions and emotions like a delicate dessert. Niamh’s confidence in her power is a relief from the untrained paranormal heroine in need of guidance, and Kit makes petulance unusually charming. I especially love when a romantasy — that’s romantic fantasy — refuses to shortchange either half of the portmanteau.
To summarize Charlotte Stein’s WHEN GRUMPY MET SUNSHINE (St. Martin’s Griffin, 324 pp., paperback, $18), let me borrow words from the hero, the gruff former soccer player Alfie Harding, when he meets Mabel Willicker, who’s been hired to ghostwrite his memoir: “You think I’m a big hairy manimal who’s never gonna be able to work well with this here human cupcake.”
But though they seem like opposites, underneath Mabel and Alfie are anguished, self-doubting weirdos. What they need — and what they’re terrified of — is liberation from the cages they’ve built for themselves.
Alfie’s Roy Kent-inspired voice is a triumph — and very, very funny — but sex is where Stein really shines. This, children, is how the professionals do it. Not a rote list of parts and positions, but a physical flow between two people. It’s the difference between seeing choreography laid out in footprints on the floor, and being swept away by the dance.
Lastly, for pure comfort vibes I highly recommend TJ Alexander’s SECOND CHANCES IN NEW PORT STEPHEN (Emily Bestler Books, 336 pp., paperback, $17.99), which stares at everything going wrong in the world and dares to say happiness matters anyway.
After years in New York, Eli Ward has returned to his Florida hometown. He’s out of work, out of sorts, and out as trans. But when he reconnects with his high school boyfriend, Nick Wu — now a hot dad, and maybe not as straight as he thinks — Eli has to get his act together if he wants a second chance at happiness.
Eli’s life has come crashing down around him, but Nick’s encases him like concrete. He works too much; he has a daughter he loves but an ex whose mother makes co-parenting unpleasant; and he can’t remember the last time he did something just for fun. He didn’t expect to be just as attracted to Eli now that he’s transitioned, but that doesn’t scare him — what Nick’s afraid of is that this is only a casual fling for Eli, when Nick wants it to be so much more.
This is as low-concept a book as you can get, but it works for the same reason books by Cat Sebastian, Rebekah Weatherspoon and Jackie Lau work: You enjoy spending time with these people, and you want them to reach for joy when they can. We all should.
It’s the difference between saving the world and saving one another. The former can feel impossible; the second we can do every day.