A Close Reading Top 10 of 2020

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

It’s been a very strange year, but one of the constants has been that reading romance, as well as discussing and writing about it, has brought me a lot of joy. Seeing everyone else’s celebratory year-end Best-Of lists made me want to put one together myself. But something about ranking everything I loved seemed daunting to me. Rather counterintuitively, it was way less difficult to pick 10 passages from books I loved in 2020: I highlight like a fiend, and when I love a passage, it sticks with me for ages. These are also, to be fair, among the 10 best 2020 releases I read, so it’s still kind of a best-of list. Enjoy!

Sweetest in the Gale, Olivia Dade

Not everyone could decipher subtext. Not even if they noticed its presence, which many people – too enmeshed in their own thoughts, their own concerns- did not. Not even when it was pointed out to them by, say, a longtime teacher who wanted his ninth graders to pass their end-of-year English proficiency test, and also wanted them to take pleasure in the way simple words could contain multitudes. Universes secreted away, but open to explorers with sufficient curiosity and persistence.

Dade’s novella is a beautiful extended metaphor of love as a kind of close-reading, which is obviously right up my alley. I love how, reading this quote in context, it’s so clear that Griff is both talking about his joy in teaching students, and his realization that he, too, has the curiosity and persistence to discover the hidden subtext in the people he loves. 

Take a Hint, Dani Brown, Talia Hibbert

…the only passions Dani typically permitted herself were sexual and professional. Anything else had to make it past the committee, and the board had not approved Feeling Intensely for Zafir. The board had approved Shagging Zafir, which, more to the point, was the only proposal Dani had actually submitted.

It can be really, really hard to write a believable character who is lying to themselves about being in love. Because, after a while, if you can see it as a reader, you have to wonder why the character can’t see it themself. Dani Brown handles this beautifully by deflecting every moment of nascent emotion with sarcastic humor. That humor, on display here, helps define Dani as a character, and makes her journey enormous fun for us to go on as readers.

The Rakess, Scarlett Peckham

The loss of you reduces me. 

This quote is from the end of a letter the hero writes to the heroine in the low moment. I’m always intrigued by how romance can express the idea that it would be devastating for the main couple to be apart, without veering into alarmingly codependent “I would die without you” territory. The idea that being alone “reduces” Adam is a perfect expression of that balance.  

“Yes, And,” from He’s Come Undone, Ruby Lang

But worry over Joan aside, he’d enjoyed himself, sitting knee-to-knee in a warm, crowded bar on a weeknight with a woman who had laughed at him and with him, whose hands cut gracefully through the air, who interrupted him when he was about to be his worst, most patronizing self, who’d smiled at him always like he was his best self.

I adore how Darren’s POV is on display here. Having already seen him freak out, in Chapter 2, that his accidental attendance at an improv class might involve “touch[ing] knees with another human being,” we know that “knee-to-knee,” “warm,” “crowded,” and “weeknight” are all descriptors Darren should not enjoy. Yet here, he does. It’s a descriptor of place that’s infused with character, and it’s specific in a way that contrasts beautifully with the broad strokes of Joan’s understanding of his worst and best self. 

The Love Study, Kris Ripper

Their nose crinkled up. Adorably. In a vaguely intriguing way. 

Here’s another great take on sarcastic deflection of one’s own emotions, with a clever use of strikethrough that I’ve never seen before. This book does a great job of taking the online environment that’s so important to the plot (one of the MCs is a successful YouTuber) and translating it into the way the prose is written. It felt fresh without being forced, a kind of internet idiom that was still organic to novel-writing as a form. 

You Had Me at Hola, Alexis Daria

Having seen what was within, she could even love the walls for keeping him safe, even though she thought he was being a royal jackass for locking her out again. 

The idea that romance MCs put up walls to keep love out is a metaphor we use so often we hardly think about what it means, and this line breathes new life into that metaphor by making it concrete. In the process, Daria crafts a beautiful statement about loving someone’s flaws, even those that keep you apart. 

Boyfriend Material, Alexis Hall

“Who are you wearing?” someone yelled from the crowd. 

 Okay. They were definitely not talking to me. My clothes were much closer to a “what” than a “who.” 

A lot of the jokes in this book are BIG laugh-out-loud moments, but I’m partial to this slightly smaller one. It crafts humor out of an understanding of idioms: “who” are you wearing is a question for classy, rich celebrities; “what” are you wearing is a question for someone who has taken some very serious wrong turns. “Closer to a ‘what’ than a ‘who’” helps build our understanding Luc’s particular brand of minor-disaster-celebrity, and sets up this book’s clever take on celebrity romance as a trope. 

Honeytrap, Aster Glenn Gray

“Let’s get takeout,” Daniel suggested. “That way you won’t even have to stop reading for dinner.” 

“Yes,” Gennady agreed. He added, with an attempt at American overstatement, “That sounds perfect.” 

Matching a meaningful gesture to a couple who barely know each other yet is no small feat, and Daniel suggesting they get takeout so Gennady can read a book he’s excited about hits that sweet spot. And I love how Gennady can both skewer American habits and want to try them on for himself  – a tension maintained throughout the book in a really sharp, observant way. 

Love Lettering, Kate Clayborn

I would say that a woman stood next to me on the subway and I think she used the same shampoo as you, and I could hardly breathe for how much I missed you.

I love an early declaration of emotion as a hypothetical or counterfactual: like right here, when Reid tells Meg exactly what he would say to her… if he told her the truth. And then tells her the truth and gives away that he knows what her shampoo smells like and is already coming to think of very NYC places as full of her. Also, “I could hardly breathe for how much I missed you” is just ACHINGLY romantic. 

The Sugared Game, KJ Charles

He trusts me with some things, but not everything by a very long way. He loves me, but he doesn’t tell me about what matters most. He holds onto things that hurt as if it would be cheating to let anyone help.

Like all of KJ Charles writing, this passage has a gorgeous sense of how much rhythm and structure matter to a good sentence. The first two sentences have a “but” that emphasis the push and pull of Will’s love for Kim… and the last one leaves you waiting for the “but” that never comes: a perfect expression of how insurmountable some of their conflicts seem. 

Well, that’s my end-of-year list! I’m hoping to be back in 2021 with more close readings, and a more-regular “Favorite Words Friday” feature. Hope you’ve enjoyed, and feel free to share any books/words/passages you loved this year too!

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