One of summer’s dishier pleasures is the possibility of following a compelling and much-covered celebrity romance; it is extremely convenient timing that Bennifer 2.0 arrived right on schedule for this laziest and most gossipy of seasons.
But it’s never simply about the fairy tale, because one of the underlying questions propelling public fascination with these stories is always: are these two for real? We all know damn well that celebrity romances are often some sort of spin, part of the vast machinery of publicity relations. Which, of course, just presents another tantalizing trope—that of the fake relationship that becomes more. My point here is that Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta published their co-written novel, The View Was Exhausting, with absolutely perfect timing, because it examines and plays with this precise issue. (Also, the cover could not possibly scream “vicarious glamour for your summer by the pool” harder.) The book follows the relationship between Win Tagore, an actress attempting to navigate the rough waters of Hollywood as a British woman of Indian descent, and Leo Malinowski, playboy charmer, after they’re set up as a PR stunt. It gets complicated, as always.
As part of our summer reading recommendations series, Clements and Datta have suggested Mary McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Wang Shuo, and more, and they’re absolutely right that you should read The Count of Monte Cristo.
Pink Mountain On Locust Island, Jamie Marina Lau
Our heroine Monk is living in an unnamed city’s Chinatown, trying to avoid her belligerent father, when she meets cool boy and romantic interest Santa Coy—who promptly teams up with her dad to run a series of art cons. Written in short, sharp vignettes, this novel feels like a fever dream in neon lights, with a sly, observant heroine we loved. It’s a great one to keep you company on hot nights or dazed days.
America Is Not The Heart, Elaine Castillo
Elaine Castillo’s debut novel tells the story of Hero, who emigrates to live in San Jose, California with her beloved uncle after years spent underground in a guerrilla revolutionary group in the Philippines. It’s an overwhelming and epic novel with a narrative and protagonist who immediately grip you, and it’s so incisive and beautiful about so many things: family, food, migration, duty, trauma. But the thing that gets us most is its love story—a sexy, funny, sweeping romance with one of the best “I love you” declarations you’ll ever read.
salt slow, Julia Armfield
Short stories can be just right for summer, when the heat is fraying your attention span or you want to read a whole and realized narrative between swims. Julia Armfield’s collection salt slow is eerie and sticky and queer, with all the beats you’d want: glittery sweat on your skin after you’ve seen your favorite semi-divine popstar, sunny picnics with housemates (who might be murderers… but then again, maybe you are too), a summer when a whole city’s ability to sleep just picks up and leaves. There’s dense, gorgeous writing here, in a collection of utter delights.
The Group, Mary McCarthy
This classic has been around long enough that you can find a whole range of tattered paperbacks with excellent covers, perfect for taking on planes or trains and reading in gulps whenever you get the chance. Written in the ’60s and set in the 30s, there’s something alarmingly modern about The Group with its laser focus on power dynamics between men and women, the rise of fascism, and sexual (mis)adventure. It’s also hilarious, and hot.
Tar Baby, Toni Morrison
This is a slim, sweltering novel that manages to be a creeping ghost story and a deeply sexy romance all at once. Morrison is a master of atmosphere and the close, claustrophobic world of Tar Baby is utterly enveloping, whether her characters are in an ant-ridden tropical greenhouse, a supermodel’s chaotic New York apartment, or on a dusty country road. We probably don’t need to tell you that this book is beautifully written—it’s Toni Morrison, after all—but the complex, fiery chemistry between Jadine and Son and the sticky, often uneasy family dynamics that surround them make this a completely engrossing summer read.
Wang Shuo is the master and pioneer of so-called “hooligan literature”, a foul-mouthed genre within modern Chinese fiction featuring all the cynicism and feral laziness of youth. In Playing For Thrills, Fang Yan is disrupted from his sleepy days spent playing underground poker games, drinking beers and picking up girls around Beijing when he comes under suspicion of a friend’s murder. At first this promises to be a thriller, but instead it turns into a dreamy, spiraling stream of consciousness, brimming with vivid imagery and prose so sharp you can taste it—it’s gripping and worrying at once.
Heatstroke, Hazel Barkworth
This is not your comfy, lazy, lounge-by-the-pool summer read—this book is about unbearable heat, the sort of heat that takes over your brain and body and makes you feel crazy. It’s about the secretive lives of teenage girls, the strained and shifting relationships they have with their mothers, and the fallout from illicit affairs that inevitably become public. This book was constantly surprising, and right up to the end it’s impossible to predict what will happen next.
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
Look, sometimes you’re going on holiday and there’s about a hundred books calling your name and you’re trying to decide which five you should fit in your luggage and whether you’ll get through them all and need to pack an extra one, and there’s only one solution: Take a brick. This particular brick has got it all - murder, mayhem, revenge, romance, a secret lesbian plotline, shipwrecks, seduction. And unlike Les Miserables, there’s no lengthy segue into Paris’s sewage system.