Valentine’s Day Reading List, 2020 edition

Happy Valentine’s Day! In the spirit of the holiday, I thought that I’d share some of my favorite romance novels with you all. The only problem is…I have not read very many traditional romance novels. So I’m being very generous with the term “romance novel” here, and recommending my favorite novels that have romance in them (but would not necessarily be categorized in the romance genre).

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less is not a traditional romance novel, yet the entire book feels like a rom-com in novel form. In this novel, writer Arthur Less plans an around-the-world adventure to avoid going to his ex-lover’s wedding. The book is hilarious, heartbreaking, heartwarming, and surprisingly profound. I recommend this novel to those who love a good rom-com!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is even less of a traditional romance novel than Less, but it features a truly excellent love story. This book revolves around the (fictional) reserved Hollywood celebrity Evelyn Hugo, who sits down with a journalist to give a tell-all interview about her life. In telling her life story, Evelyn recounts her seven marriages, and the story of the one true love of her life. This novel is an addictive page-turner, and also surprisingly moving.

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

This book is the clearest “romance-novel” of the bunch. In it, two frenemies (who happen to be the first son of the U.S.A., and Prince Henry of England) are forced to stage a friendship as a publicity stunt. As the two spend more time together, they become close and develop real feelings for each other. Both being major public figures, however, they have to determine if becoming a serious couple is actually possible. This novel is wonderful: the love story is believable and endearing, and the characters are so smart and complex. I highly recommend it!

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

This one is really different. The Pisces follows graduate student Lucy, who moves to California for a summer after breaking up with her boyfriend of nine years and spiraling into an emotional crisis. Lucy is supposed to use the time in California to pick herself up and attend group therapy sessions, but instead feels her emptiness with sex and relationships…ultimately finding somebody as insecure and needy as she is. This book is strange, and disturbing at times, but it is also incredibly profound, and makes a great anti-romance novel.

Have you read any of the novels listed here? What other romance novels (not listed here) do you recommend?

(Valentine’s Day cheesecake with) Less

The book: Less by Andrew Sean Greer.

It is almost Valentine’s Day, and I recently finished a seasonally appropriate novel to celebrate. Less is the story of Arthur Less, a middle-aged writer who plans a spontaneous trip around the world to avoid his ex-lover’s wedding. He travels to New York, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, India, and Japan – with exactly none of the trips playing out as he had expected.

Less is phenomenal for many reasons, and one of those reasons is the prose. I have always been amazed at the ability of writers to describe common experiences in a way that makes them seem novel or profound. Andrew Sean Greer does this throughout Less. Take, for example, his insight into why anxious people are actually quite brave:

“…because he is afraid of everything, nothing is harder than anything else. Taking a trip around the world is no more terrifying than buying a stick of gum.”

Another wonderful thing about Less is the humor. Although the novel is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it is frequently smirk-or-chuckle-to-yourself funny. The entire visit to Germany, for example, is made incredibly light by translating Less’s broken German (Less thinks he is fluent, by the way) into its English equivalent. Even simple one-liners are enough to make you smile, like the description of Less feeling like “a criminal who has pulled off one last heist” for managing to mail off the airport’s tax-free form despite government bureaucracy making this a nearly impossible task.

Then, there is the plot itself. Arthur Less travels to eight different destinations, and we read about his adventures in each one. Despite the fact that world travel drives the plot, Less is neither travel-porn nor the stereotypical obscenely inspirational “finding-yourself” narrative. Although Less does reflect on his life and himself throughout his travels, I think the novel differs from the aforementioned genres because it never takes itself too seriously. Even at its most contemplative, Less is light-hearted.

Perhaps the best thing about Less was that it could have ended any number of ways and still been a satisfying read. By the end of Less’s journey, we know that he has grown and that he is going to be okay regardless of what happens when he returns home. That being said, I loved the ending that Andrew Sean Greer chose for this book. And if you are a fan of romantic comedies, I suspect you will too.

The bake: strawberry chocolate cheesecake.

Since Less is essentially a romantic comedy in novel form, I decided to be cheesy and bake a romantic dessert. No, literally. I decided to be cheesy, as in, I baked a cheesecake. Specifically, this raspberry chocolate cheesecake from I Am Baker. Actually, I ended up making a strawberry chocolate cheesecake, because all the raspberries at my local Kroger were covered in mold.

This bake is a little bit involved. The preparation required so many mixing bowls (read: so many dishes to wash)! Also, the actual baking of a cheesecake is no easy task! This was my first time ever attempting to make cheesecake, and I learned the hard way that precision is key. Luckily, I was able to hide the major flaws – cracks in the top of the cake – with decoration.

The finished dessert! I meant to take a picture of what it looked like sliced…but my co-workers and I devoured the cake too quickly!

Cosmetic difficulties aside, this was a fantastic recipe. This dessert is indulgent, cheesy, and sweet – making it an excellent tribute to Less and to Valentine’s Day.