Small-town love stories are a popular staple of romance novels and television, and many of them follow a certain pattern. These stories often convey a certain implied hierarchy of lifestyle choices: It's all about rejecting big city values and returning to life on a smaller and slower scale.
In the strictest versions of this fiction, small towns are lifesaving havens for burned out and jaded city refugees. Real estate development should always be scrapped in favor of historic preservation and charm. And career-minded, type-A women often have two choices: Let their hair down and let go of some of their ambitions or get left behind for earthier partners.
Book Lovers by Emily Henry is both a tribute to and takedown of this cultural form by a star of the summer beach read. Her playful and clever contemporary romance — her third — pokes holes in many of the assumptions that surround small towns in popular culture.
To start, both of its leads are ride-or-die New York City devotees. Nora Stephens, the heroine and narrator of Book Lovers, is the kind of driven woman usually left behind when a leading man leaves for greener pastures, which has happened to her more than once.
Late for a meeting with Charlie Lastra, a fastidious book acquisition editor with the Midas touch, "uptight" Nora — the "manicured literary agent, reading manuscripts from atop her Peloton" — is reeling from being dumped yet again by a man who's moving to a small town, and thinking hard about this cliched plot turn:
[T]hat's why I'm running late to this lunch meeting. Because that's my life. The trope that governs my days. The archetype over which my details are superimposed. I'm the city person. Not the one who meets the hot farmer. The other one.
The lunch starts badly and gets worse. Since Nora processes life in terms of fiction, in her view, "If I'm the archetypical City Person, he is the Dour, Unappeasable Stick-in-the-Mud. He's the Growly Misanthrope, Oscar the Grouch, second-act Heathcliff, the worst parts of Mr. Knightley."
Two years later, that resentment remains. Grumpy, exacting Charlie is Nora's literary nemesis, the man who insulted and turned down Once in a Lifetime, one of her client's greatest hits. But when both Nora and Charlie land in the same small town at the same time, irritation yields to attraction.
The first sighting is a shock and an accident. Nora is checking about the cute guy in line for coffee. He turns around, and there's her grumpy Mr. Knightley. She tries to run off.
A few meetings later, it's clear that their surface rivalry masks similarities and chemistry. Nora and Charlie share the same ambitions and priorities, feel like outsiders, and most of all, are both very loyal to family. Though her favorite writer likens her to a shark (much to her horror), Nora mostly bares those sharp teeth in service of loved ones and clients.
Hard-edged in the workplace, Nora (named after the late romantic comedy luminary Nora Ephron) has a deep dedication to being her younger sister's keeper — since their mother's death when Nora was in college. And that lands both women in the small town of Sunshine Falls, just outside Asheville, N.C., for a month.
Heavily pregnant Libby craves rest and time away from responsibility – and her cramped New York City apartment — before the birth of her third child, and she's excited to immerse herself in the storybook small-town life that Once in a Lifetime made famous, even if the town has seen better days.
Libby devises a list of experiences that she and Nora have to complete to attain the maximum "small-town romance novel" effect: Wearing flannel, going on at least two dates with locals, and saving a local business will transform them into more relaxed versions of themselves. A supportive and loyal Nora plays along without protest.
But instead of salt of the earth locals, Charlie and Nora only have eyes for each other. Of course, there's a catch. While Nora and Libby are in Sunshine Falls for downtime and adventure, Charlie is there out of necessity.
Though born and raised in the picturesque North Carolina town, Charlie never felt accepted there for reasons revealed later in the novel. He's returned only to support the family bookstore while his mother cares for his father, who's suffered a stroke.
That potential long-term responsibility threatens to derail their future as a couple — or leave Nora behind yet again. So while things heat up quickly, the "will they or won't they" energy persists.
That's one aspect of the novel that seemed a bit of a stretch. Given how in sync and smart Charlie and Nora are, I had a hard time believing they couldn't figure out a way to be together while still supporting their family.
Nonetheless, the story is multilayered and the characters' familial challenges are complex. By both playing to and overtly subverting romance tropes and archetypes like the high-powered big city woman who neglects her family and the life-affirming power of small-town life, this novel delivers an insightful comedic meditation on love, family and going your own way.
A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.