If you are a reader of romance, you’ve likely had your own “meet cute” with the books of Emily Henry, from “Beach Read” (2020) to “Book Lovers” (2022), which respectively follow conventional rivals-to-lovers and enemies-to-lovers romance plot trajectories. Through the lens of these books, Henry’s literary worldview is very clear: Romance is neither fluff nor tragedy, it’s just life.
With her latest, “Happy Place,” Henry covers new territory. It is, in many ways, the least “happy” of her works, less swooning and more longing, with a sense of melancholy permeating throughout. The story follows a week in the life of three friends — Harriet, Sabrina and Cleo — who, on meeting in college, became their own cozy, chosen family. With their three partners in tow, the gang descends on Sabrina’s father’s summer home in Maine. Sabrina has insisted on this reunion: She has a surprise in store, but she is not the only one. Everyone on this trip has a secret to keep.
Most of Henry’s books focus on two characters, but this ensemble piece presents female friendship in all its warmth and woundedness, blessedly absent of misogynist tropes of jealousy and pettiness. Admittedly, Sabrina, Cleo and their counterparts don’t come through as sharply as the two leads, their motives mostly a mystery until the final chapters.
The core of the novel is, without question, the ballad of Harriet and her ex-fiancé, Wyn. The novel is structured in flashbacks that detail their initial attraction, their mutual devotion and the sudden, shattering breakup that devastates them both. Because they don’t want to ruin the festive reunion atmosphere, the former golden couple agrees to fake it, just for the few days they are all together. Despite their breakup, the love, of course, is still quite real — it’s the faking-it that’s fake. Let the hardcore yearning commence. “We,” Harriet muses, as she listens to Wyn talk. “Hearing him say it is like biting into a Maine blueberry, the way you taste the salt water and the cold sky and the damp earth and the sun all at once.”
Henry’s work shines among her best-selling romance compatriots, a group that includes Helen Hoang, Colleen Hoover, Beth O’Leary and Ali Hazelwood. They all blur the lines between women’s and literary-leaning commercial fiction, departing from the fantasy spaces of bodice rippers and misty moors to depict a world that looks a lot more like, well, our own. The characters do not struggle with postfeminist problems like adorable clumsiness or excessive shopping, reflecting instead on how race, class, trauma, and (dis) ability shape their desires and their lives.
These days, a romance reading habit is not to be hidden under the mattress or whispered in a private book club. It is to be crowed, proudly, on social media, BookTok and Instagram, in particular. Henry operates at the top of her — and her readers’ — intelligence, telling sophisticated, heartfelt stories that are conscious of the romantic comedy conventions without being overly meta about them. Best of all, her characters are funny in the way real people are, her romantic moments thrilling. Genre devotees can attest that not all romantic comedies are both romantic and comedic. Some, in fact, are neither.
“Happy Place” is funny at points, but it is also the closest that Henry has come to writing an old-school melodrama, a heart-rending plot that struggles to express the inexpressible. All romances, be they comedies or dramas, demand that their leads get vulnerable and confess their feelings before is too late. What differentiates “Happy Place” from a standard love story is how much it’s a love-in-the-time-of-covid story, though inexplicably, neither covid nor the pandemic is referenced explicitly. The protagonist, Harriet, is a burned-out medical professional considering a career change. Meanwhile, Sabrina and Cleo, in the book’s B-plot, suffer the pangs of estrangement — one hesitates to schedule a visit, the other feels stressed and isolated and less intimate than before. There’s also the sudden death of a loved one in the book’s second act, complete with psychological fallout, as well as plenty of picturesque outdoor dining and leisure activities. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
The subtlest of time capsules, “Happy Place” resonates with our shared losses from the past few years. The only Happy Place any of us can count on, Henry seems to argue, is one another. And if your other has a “smoky velvet voice” and a “cut-glass profile,” well, so much the better.
The characters from “Beach Read” make a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in “Happy Place,” which suggests that Henry might explore developing her own RCU (Romantic Comedy Universe) in the vein of Jasmine Guillory, Talia Hibbert and others. Was this a playful Easter egg for the author’s superfans, or are the side characters in “Happy Place” destined for their own spin offs? Only the author and maybe her agent can answer this question. But based on her last four novels, Henry’s dedicated readers know what to expect: wit, charm and heart, satisfying to the last page.
Annie Berke is the author of “Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television.”
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