What others may know as beach reads, I think of palette cleansers. These are the lighthearted, romantic, typically feminine novels that dull the ache of that last round of dystopian chaos that was read foolheartedly into the wee hours of the morning. Palette cleansers are gentle escapism – significantly less likely to give one a headache than an additional glass of wine.
Yet, I still have criteria for my palette cleansers. They have to have enough character development that I care whether or not the protagonist lives happily ever after. There has to be enough of a hook. White girl trying to make it big in New York while dating loser guys until she meets the guy is not a plot, it’s a cliché. The Devil Wears Prada is an exception to that rule. Let’s face it – white girl trying to make it big in New York while ditching the decent boyfriend to salivate for Meryl Streep is a decent enough hook.
Here are my suggested summer palette cleansers – just in time for 2021 Memorial Day weekend.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Louisa Clark is a working-class girl who takes a job as a home health aide for Will Traynor. Will had it all – the big-time career in London, gorgeous girlfriend, family money and an adventurous lifestyle until a tragic accident left him confined to a wheelchair. The quirky, free-spirited Louisa and the entitled-but-charming Will would not have met under normal circumstances, much less become friends. Their definitive chemistry is tempered by the undercurrent of Will’s ongoing depression at the reality of his paralysis. Louisa takes it upon herself to demonstrate to Will how big and beautiful his world can still be. Ultimately, the question becomes whether or not Louisa can convince him. The movie, starring Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) and Sam Clafin (Hunger Games trilogy) was nearly as charming as the book.
The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
Helen Hoang is the author that I wished I had learned about years ago. Hoang lives locally here in San Diego and speaks openly about being on the autistic spectrum. Her personal experience undoubtedly inspires the character of Khai Diep, the attractive co-founder of an internet start-up. Khai has never really found space for dating or romantic entanglements. He’s convinced that he’d be bad at it anyway. Enter Esme Tran, a clever woman from the slums of Ho Chi Minh, who Khai’s mom handpicks as a potential bride for her son. Khai and Esme are attracted to each other from the beginning but both the obstacles abound (Vietnamese-American vs. Vietnamese immigrant) and (neurodivergent vs. neurotypical). Some reviewers call Hoang’s writing “quirky” but really she’s spit-out-your-drink hilarious. While listening to an audiobook, I had to pull my car of the road during a scene when Khai’s brother and cousin offer him a tutorial on the ways that one can tell whether or not their partner is actually enjoying sex. Khai’s subsequent confusion completely elevates this scene to comic gold. I can’t wait to read Hoang’s other novels.
Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner
Jennifer Weiner is the champion of the palette-cleansing beach read. It is not lost one me that two of Weiner’s most recent novels have “Summer” in the title. Weiner creates relatable, engaging heroines, who are often in the process of some sort of personal transformation. Big Summer tells the story of Daphne Berg, an aspiring plus-sized influencer, who is merrily living her life. That is until Drue Cavanaugh, her one-time best friend, waltzes back into it. Drue has everything – the Harvard education, the successful career at her father’s company and the impending Society wedding of the year. So, why does she need Daphne, a friend she ditched six years ago under humiliating circumstances to be her maid-of-honor? When Drue is discovered dead on the morning after her wedding, Daphne and her friends try to peel back the veil on Drue’s life to determine what is and isn’t real. Weiner weaves a classic beach read about complicated female friendship and turns it into a page-turning mystery. All the while, there are subtle questions about the role social media plays in determining perception and identity.
First Comes Love by Emily Giffin
Emily Giffin is one of those novelists who takes “normal” situations and inserts interesting tensions into them. She broke out on the publishing scene with Something Borrowed, a novel about the “good-girl” best friend who sleeps with her best friend’s fiancé. First Comes Love is the story of two sisters, Josie and Meredith. Josie has always been “freer” one of the sisters – outgoing, social and a bit directionless. Conversely, Meredith is poised, responsible and tightly wound. Both sisters are living under the shadow of their idealized brother, Daniel, who was killed in a car crash when he was still in law school. This novel really explores the roles ascribed to us in our family of origins and what happens when we begin to test them. It’s a good read for anyone who enjoys exploring the relationships between adult siblings.