Happy Hearts: Signs of Love

Romance fiction’s promise of a happy, emotionally satisfying ending has always been one of its selling points for readers. I don’t know about you, but I need that reassurance now more than ever. And while romance fiction contains multitudes—including romantic suspense and high angst/drama—I’m craving sweeter, lighter emotionally satisfying novels at the moment. This month I share with you the best novel I’ve read in 2020, Kate Clayborn’s Love Lettering, a contemporary, male-female romance that delivers a sweet and sexy story in a creative and gorgeous package.

Love Lettering chronicles the slow burn relationship between Meg Mackworth, known as “the planner of Park Slope” for her work making custom journals and planners for wealthy clients, and Reid Sutherland, a quantitative analyst for a large corporation. Meg is guarded, lonely, and a little lost, while Reid is closed off and overly serious. Over time, they reveal their inner fears and desires, and fall into openness and love. The true nature of Reid’s work, which we don’t find out until late in the novel, threatens their relationship. Love Lettering also highlights the complexities of adult friendships and how they are shaped by jealousy, romantic relationships, and history.

The novel is a love letter to many things—to Meg’s art, to the relationship between Meg and Reid, to female friendship, and to New York City. That part has additional resonance now as we watch New York City grapple with the worse of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meg and Reid take long walks around different parts of the city, making a game of finding hand painted signs; this game plays to both Meg’s strengths of thinking in words and letters, and Reid’s strengths of thinking in numbers and patterns. The game helps Meg break her creative block, and helps Reid fall in love with the city. Readers visit a New York City that’s so much more diverse, vast, local, and vibrant than the visions we we see on TV or typical tourist visits. Meg and Reid’s games can be adapted to our social distancing times—perhaps we can create challenges in which we look for artwork, lettering, or some other distinctive trait in items around our homes or neighborhoods to see quotidian creativity.

Love Lettering is a beautifully written novel, with loving attention to detail and description of Meg’s artwork and creative process, her deep reflections on her relationships, and of the city itself. Clayborn’s talent lies in layering details and emotion to invoke all of the expected romance narrative elements and feelings. She uses Meg’s art to show how we are constantly crafting text and subtext, and how this presents challenges within all kinds of relationships—to ourselves, friends, family, and, yes, our romantic partners.

I was skeptical of the first person point of view; most romance novels use a form of third person narration that allows us to see through both protagonists’ perspectives, filtered by narrative omniscience. I’ve grown accustomed to this PoV, and appreciate the glimpses into each protagonist, so I know their quirks, hang ups, and feelings, even before they do. I’m often disappointed reading first person romance novels, because I don’t know enough about the other protagonist to buy into the love story. Clayborn’s novel is a masterclass in first person PoV for romance novels, because we dive so deep into Meg’s perspective; Meg is deeply attuned to text and subtext, sensitive and observant to Reid’ actions, words, gestures. And given the storyline and the particular barrier that Reid faces—a secret involving work—this PoV works well to preserve this secret for the reader as well, making it all the more surprising and satisfying when we find out what it is.

Love Lettering is available in ebook and audiobook, and should also be available for order from your favorite independent bookstore—these shops need our support now more than ever.

And for a bonus, I have a few recommendations for romance novellas—shorter stories that you might be able to read in one or two sittings, perfect for shorter attention spans given the cognitive challenges of living during a global pandemic.

Mangos and Mistletoe: A Foodie Holiday Novella, by Adriana Herrera

This contemporary female-female romance novella is Great British Bakeoff meets Hallmark Christmas movie, and features the romance between professional baker Kiskeya Burgos and hobby baker Sully Morales. The two women share Dominican roots, though they both live in the United States. This novella includes a favorite romance trope of “just one bed,” and satisfies with descriptions of delicious baked goods and steamy passion, served with a side of social justice.

Layover, by Katrina Jackson

This contemporary male-female romance novel shows us the world of Black creatives working in digital media through travel blogger Lena Ward and podcaster Tony Dembélé. Lena, a blogger and expert playlist maker, has been traveling the world as she grieves her mother’s death. Back home in Oakland, California for a short layover, she connects with her best friend, family, and…Tony.

By Dr. Jessica Lyn Van Slooten

Jessica Lyn Van Slooten is an Associate Professor of EnglishWriting, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. She teaches courses on women writers, gender and popular culture, romance writing, and more. Jessica has published numerous articles on teaching and assessing gender studies courses, and popular romance fiction and film. She is currently drafting a romance novel set in a small midwestern town.

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