Five Different Flavors of Starch: He’s Come Undone

In this anthology, out today, five novellas offer five different takes on a starchy, buttoned-up hero coming unraveled, and they do it via five delightfully different styles of prose. Cover and buy links:

He's Come Undone: A Romance Anthology

For him, control is everything…until it shatters, and now he’s come undone.

Buy links here. Content warnings are helpfully provided before each story.

I couldn’t resist the temptation of using this anthology as a glimpse into stylistic variations on a theme. My original idea had been to pick a single quote from each novella that best exemplified its unique prose style. I’ve done that, but I found that ultimately what intrigued me stylistically didn’t always highlight the best of the breathtaking, big-feelings prose on offer. So instead, I offer you five-bits of geeking out about sentence structure with short explanations, each followed by a stand-alone hit in the solar plexus with feelings. All spoiler-free. Enjoy 🙂

Appassionata- Emma Barry

His envy of virtuosity- it made him feel like an ass. He clung to rules, to politeness, partially because he didn’t want his jealousy to show.

The sentences in this novella have flow and cadence like music. But the other thing that intrigued me is how they often seemed structured to highlight a single key word. In the case of the above sentence, I stopped in my tracks at virtuosity. It’s there to describe what Brennan, a former piano player, admires and envies in Kristy, an accomplished concert pianist. Virtuosity isn’t, to my mind, as common as a word as the other lexical item it’s likely to ping in your brain: virtue. Which is exactly what Brennan tries to use to avoid his feelings for Kristy. Rules, politeness, a refusal to break the codes of his workplace. Virtue, to ward against his passion for Kristy’s virtuosity.

It’s pure reading joy when not just a single sentence, but a single word, can hand you the key to an entire thematic universe.

Bonus feelings-punch:

He had made magic, it just hadn’t been his.

Unraveled- Olivia Dade

He kept his own dark hair neatly trimmed every two weeks and in strict order, despite its distressing tendency to wave.

Simon makes a delightful starchy hero because he starts off this story truly thinking he is in control of everything. Right down to his own hair. What I really love in this sentence is that Simon isn’t distressed about his hair’s “waviness” or “being wavy” but rather it’s tendency “to wave.” He’s not concerned about a state of being so much as he is about an action – one which he is trying desperately to counteract with equal and opposite reactions of trimming and ordering. Simon expends a lot of physical energy on keeping himself inside lines that he has drawn. Watching him unravel for Poppy, a woman who isn’t afraid to color outside the lines, is an absolute delight.

Bonus feelings-punch:

If he could, he would bathe in the warm approval of her smile.

Caught Looking- Adriana Herrera

His was the first real smile I’d seen that morning – it felt to me like it had been the first one I’d seen since I left my family’s apartment in Castle Hill – and my body even then didn’t know what to do with the full impact of Hatuey Sanchez’s smile.

This sentence comes from the perspective of Yariel Cabral, who is in love with his childhood best friend Hatuey Sanchez. It offers up a perfect twist on a pretty straightforward romance motif: I like this man’s smile. Without encumbering the sentence (it reads very smoothly), Yariel fits in references to two of the most important themes of the book: home and family. We learn where Yariel is from and Hatuey’s last (or “family”) name, stated here for the first time. Who these men are to each other, where they come from, and who they are to their families, are themes all worked seamlessly into this novella, just as they are into this brief moment where Yariel sees Hatuey smile.

Bonus feelings-punch:

I loved him in every way I knew how to love.

Yes, And… – Ruby Lang

It seemed not only was he going to have to sit on the linoleum in his pressed trousers, he might even have to touch knees with another human being.

This novella starts off with Darren accidentally showing up for an improv class when he intends to be doing meditation instead: two classes that, among other things, take a *very* different approach to movement. The approach to both physicality and language in this novella is brilliant and unexpected, and I appreciated how this quote brought them together seamlessly. Darren has that delightful starchy-hero quirk of using just slightly outdated language (linoleum! trousers!), but the fact that he boils down his entire range of discomfort with physical contact to “touching knees” just seals the deal. And makes it all the sweeter when, just a few chapters later, Darren takes Joan out to a bar and doesn’t even recall his former knee-touching aversion as theirs brush together…

Bonus feelings-punch:

But it was the dead of winter in Cambridge, and even she couldn’t make the bare branches bloom with her warmth, the way she’d heated his whole body in the car.

Tommy Cabot Was Here- Cat Sebastian

God only knew how many times Everett had tugged Tommy behind the chapel or into a stairwell and insisted on making sense of his tie.

Everett and Tommy are childhood best friends who meet again unexpectedly as adults. Their memories of a childhood love they didn’t quite understand are stitched together beautifully with a present that they don’t quite know how to make sense of either.

I love a sentence with a surprise ending both in content and word choice. We expect Everett to remember pulling Tommy behind chapels and into stairwells to kiss him, not to fix his tie. And I’m entirely taken with this idea that one can “make sense of” a tie. It shows how much Everett associates orderliness with sense and meaning. It also suggests how much meaning we ascribe to the outward appearance of things – and this novella perfectly explores the struggle to understand what love means when we haven’t always been shown all of the different ways love might look.

Bonus feelings-punch:

He was afraid that if he spoke, all that would come out would be a confession, fifteen years’ worth of I miss you.

I cannot recommend this anthology (of which I’m very grateful to have received an ARC) highly enough. Go forth and get wrecked by love!

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