this is a romance novel. and i do not like romance novels.
however, emezi’s writing is always fire, so even though the skeleton of this is a pretty formulaic “widow gets second chance at true love” romance plot, it’s a great version of this kind of story, so despite the many times i cringed whenever romance-writing crept into it, bringing its overblown cliches:
“When I think about the ways I want to touch you, there’s no space for anything else. I am consumed, utterly.”
or when it leaned hard into one of my biggest pet peeves; unrealistic micro-evaluations of a character’s fleeting facial expressions/vocal intonations (this example has BOTH!):
A thread of sadness snagged on his last few words, and Feyi watched the grief move in a slow wave through his eyes.
even with those things cluttering my path, there was more to it than those annoying bits and it is, at least, a very *complicated* love story.
feyi is a young widow whose high school sweetheart jonah, whom she married right after college, died in a car wreck five years before the novel begins. since then, she’s been defined by her grief, consumed with survivor’s guilt, living with her best friend joy and keeping busy making her art, with no interest in romance, sex, or relationships.
…Feyi had moved down to New York, because if she was a monster, then so was the city, glorious and bright and everlasting, eating up time and hearts and lives as if they were nothing. She wanted to be consumed by the relentless volume of a place so much louder than she was, a place where her past and her pain could drown in the noise. Here, Feyi could keep her name and her unruined face, yet become someone else, someone starting over, someone who wasn’t haunted. No one in New York cared about the vintage of sadness tucked behind her eyes and in the small corners of her smiles. She didn’t have to drive, and she could cry on the train and no one would look, no one would care, because she didn’t matter, and it was, honestly, such a relief to stop mattering.
but after “years of numbness,” her sexual desires begin stirring again, and she’s ready to start easing back into life and its pleasures. “easing” may not be le mot juste, as the first chapter finds her barebacking a stranger in a bathroom during a party, which is the kind of reckless behavior we’re not supposed to applaud (and joy certainly gives her some grief over it), but it was just what feyi needed to kickstart her back into the deep end of the dating pool.
feyi’s hot girl summer/sexual reawakening involves three men whom she uses like stepping stones to return to life, beginning with milan, he of rawdog bathroom fame. she’s gone through her five stages of grief, and now she’s exploring the stages of love in all of its permutations:
“……there are so many different types of love, so many ways someone can stay committed to you, stay in your life even if y’all aren’t together, you know? And none of these ways are more important than the other.”
what follows is a goldilocks romance plot where she test-drives a few different relationship models—with milan: great sex with no emotional intimacy, nasir: emotional connection with no passion, and alim: an older man who has also lost a partner and understands the core of her deepest pain.
but, of course, there are some obstacles and turbulence best left unsaid for now.
like most romance novels, it’s more complex with emotions than with plot—everything moves very quickly except for the introspection, which is slow and sticky—and it embraces all the romance novel tropes: a beautiful protagonist, multiple attractive and appealing suitors who love talking about their feelings and their expectations and say shit like “I very much want to respect your heart in this, too, which is why I’m asking about which boundaries feel comfortable for you,” and, through them, she is catapulted into a fairytale dreamworld—getting her work into a prestigious art show alongside all of her favorite artists, introducing her to the artworld elite, staying in a celebrity chef’s mansion in a tropical island paradise with frolicking monkeys and oh my god the food.
it’s a very sensual book—not just the sex, because reading about other people boning is whatever, but the food, the music, the vibrant foliage—feyi’s is a full-scale multisensory reawakening, and that is the beauty of this book. not the jane austen parade of suitors or the “hard and velvet and dew-tipped” peens, but feyi’s growing confidence as she emerges out of her trauma-coma and her willingness to engage with…everything again.
if you want a fun drinking game, take a shot every time the word “alive” is used. here’s a sampling:
—It was the start of summer, she was alive and she was so fucking close to becoming what she wanted…
—a roiling sweaty mess of alive
—She was alive, like her therapist had taught her, and it was okay to live.
—She was hers; she was alive; there was so much to do.
—And, because Feyi was Feyi and she was alive, there was no way she could say no.
—…because Feyi was herself, and alive, she kept going
—It was a party, and she was drunk and alive.
—To hell with the trouble this would bring, she was alive.
—”…I think we’re just figuring out how to survive a world on fire…that it’s okay to be alive.”
u drunk yet?
so, i still don’t like romance novels, but i’m rounding this one up to a four because honestly—i’m just impressed with emezi’s raw talent. this is my fourth of their books, and each one has been so markedly different—Freshwater was challenging and structurally wild, The Death of Vivek Oji was a masterpiece but also straightforward enough for wine-soaked book clubs to appreciate, and Pet—well, i didn’t really like Pet, but i was still impressed with what they produced for younger readers, even if i wasn’t a fan.
and even though i had to wade through a lot of blucky romance prose (every time alim called her “sweetness” (which is, for the record, TWENTY-TWO times), eyerolls ensued), when it’s not being all romance-wincy, the dialogue is great, especially between feyi and joy, whose friendship is everything everything. i also appreciate that joy’s character is a winky spin on the rom-com “gay best friend” trope, where the twist is that—unlike most rom coms, where the gbf is a boy—here the bisexual feyi has slept with her lesbian bestie. they hooked up for a while in the empty space before this book begins, but it never became a relationship, which is a shame because they complement each other so well and i’d rather see them together than feyi tits-deep in her messy-messy (but “messy and alive“) situation.
feyi is a compelling and flawed character and i get that we’re meant to root for her because of what she’s been through (and the fact that she makes a “that’s what she said” joke automatically endears her to me), but the whole “the heart wants what the heart wants” shrug doesn’t really mitigate every selfish decision, and she leaves some pretty significant destruction in her wake. love is often messy, but this one—yeesh. i do not envy what comes next for her.