Bookmarked: The Romance Renaissance of Emily Henry

Writer Hailey Gates dives into her love for romance novelist Emily Henry, the best-selling author of “Beach Read.”

I, like many other consumers of BookTok, adore author Emily Henry. 

Henry’s debut novel “The Love That Split The World” was published in 2016. Three years later, her 2020 novel “Beach Read” would propel her to success — almost instantly cementing its spot on The New York Times Best Sellers List. Since “Beach Read,” Henry has published a critically-acclaimed contemporary romance novel every year. She is set to release her latest one, “Funny Story,” in April. 

Her witty writing, captivating characters and cliché yet self-aware romantic shenanigans have re-characterized contemporary romance novels. Much of the romance reading community raves about Henry’s work. Her colorful covers seem to pop up on every bookstore table and in every corner of the internet.

What is it about Henry’s writing that has propelled her to genre-defining heights? Why are readers so enamored with her relatively predictable, perceptive yet trope-heavy stories? 

I would venture it’s because of the normalcy of Henry’s characters — they’re a distorted, almost idealized reflection of her readers — and they are profoundly real. Her female protagonists are complex and opinionated, self-confident yet critical and simultaneously committed to being one of “the girlies.” Although this dynamic is apparent in some respect throughout all of Henry’s heroines, it’s most recognizable in her 2022 novel “Book Lovers.”

“Book Lovers” follows the story of literary agent Nora, a self-declared workaholic. Nora embodies the antagonistic city woman who often juxtaposes the archetypal Hallmark heroine. The story follows Nora’s struggles with balancing her work-intensive life with her relationships, both familial and, of course, romantic. 

The novel brilliantly plays into the enemies-to-lovers tension which has become a renowned trope in literary modernity. The trope is established in the opening pages of the book with a vignette-style scene in which the two love interests have a mutually spiteful first meeting. 

Although Henry is clearly intentional in her capitalization on the enemies-to-lovers trope, she also disrupts its traditional model by having her characters continuously recognize the prototypical nature of their situations. 

“Because that’s my life. The trope that governs my days. The archetype over which my details are superimposed,” Nora said. “I’m the one who gets dumped.”

This dedication to — and subversion of — romantic conventions may be what initially draws readers in, but it’s Henry’s thoughtfully multifaceted and realistically complex characters who compel readers to stay. Nora is high-maintenance and ambitious, but she is also a loving sister, a dedicated agent, and a fervent believer in her intensive skincare routine. 

It’s the author’s commitment to the perspective and development of a character who is smart, complicated, relatable and unabashedly female that resonates with readers. Nora exists simultaneously as a successful career woman, a self-proclaimed materialist, the cool New York wine-aunt and a book lover.

Her constant juggling of these interlaced identities is, for me, what makes her character so remarkable — watching her struggle with the nuances of her everyday life reminds me that it’s okay for me to struggle with my own. Henry portrays women as individuals rather than allegories. 

Nora is the epitome of this paradoxical feminine depth: “That’s the thing about women,” Nora said. “There’s no good way to be one.”

The complications of womanhood drives much of Henry’s work. Her protagonists are all  distinctly individualized — they are all, in their own unique way, resonant of the multifaceted modern girl. Nora and her sister Libby are polar opposites. While Nora is a die-hard career woman and Libby is an overworked new-mom, both of them love their lives. 

Their ability to support each other despite their differences and validate each other’s discontentments speaks to an unmistakably feminine idea: women supporting women. Although Henry’s male characters offer depth and nuance as well, her novels are fundamentally rooted in the feminine perspective. Her works orbit around the idiosyncrasies of everyday women, as well as the necessity of supporting each other through womanhood’s inherent dissonance. 

Henry’s commitment to conveying the nuance of individuals permeates into her romantic plotlines. Although she capitalizes on — and often subverts — the overtly-tropey, she lets the intricacy of her characters drive the story. A core theme of “Book Lovers” is how two people can find a way to be individuals while still being together.

“Maybe love shouldn’t be built on a foundation of compromises, but maybe it can’t exist without them either,” Nora said. 

The brilliance of Henry is in this struggle. As readers, we often want love to be effortful rather than effortless. If readers can relate to the romantic struggles of a beloved character, then they can also find hope in their ability to overcome them. 

We want flawed and complex characters to find love against all odds but still want the odds to be against them as proof of love’s inevitability. Much contemporary romance in the literary scene is centered around two people who despise each other learning to love each other— because if even they can fall in love, then anyone can.  

Fiction is an ideal and a reprieve, but also a mechanism for hope. Henry has learned how to craft these different needs into a cohesive, ubiquitously captivating plotline. 

There is beauty in the idealized struggle of two people at odds with the idea of loving each other. In this way, there’s also merit in identifying with a character or a storyline — it’s comforting to see characters who struggle, even if those struggles are a glamorized version of our own. 

There is hope, then, in Henry’s writing — in the tropey romcom meets real-world-romance renaissance she is inspiring. There is beauty in the hardships that come with love — fictional or aspirational. Readers can identify with the depth and nuance of Henry’s characters — stories with relatable characters overcoming romantic adversity reassures the reader they can overcome their own. 

Henry leaves us hope. She cultivates it in the development of her characters and the self-awareness of her plotlines. Henry’s readership can escape into a world almost like a mirror image of their own and return to reality with a fresh set of eyes. The plot resolves, but the themes remain. 

“The last-page ache,” Nora said. “The deep breath in after you’ve set the book aside.” 

Henry has mastered the last-page ache — it’s what keeps readers coming back for more.

Featured image by Xavier Barrios / The Phoenix

Hailey Gates

Hailey Gates