Public and Private Lives, Playing Out in Four Sultry Romance Novels

Hana Sheik’s THE BABY SWAP THAT BOUND THEM (Harlequin, ebook, $3.99) starts with a pair of newborns in a Ugandan hospital: One is the son of Yusra, a divorced graphic designer; the other is an infant orphaned in a car crash, who must now be raised by a gruff, reclusive billionaire guardian named Bashir. Both birth experiences are marked by grief. There is love, but it is a desperate, dark feeling — love as need, as defensiveness, as loss.

Three years later, Bashir and Yusra learn they each took the wrong infant home from the hospital. Now they’re faced with the problem of whether to abandon the child they’ve loved and raised, or refuse their claim to the child that they were meant to have. The solution, clearly, is to raise the kids together — and to get married to simplify any questions about custody.

Marriage to a stranger is a popular premise, especially in category romances, but it’s completely realistic in cultures where arranged marriages are common. After the nikah the children fade into the background — as they should. They’re only the trope, the scaffolding of the story; we’re here to see how two unhappy adults find their way to bliss.

Bashir has one of the most advanced cases of Billionaire Romance Logic I’ve ever seen: He’s survived a flood and a shipwreck, so naturally he lives on a yacht with a glassed-in underwater observation room. An emotional reactionary, he was bumping right up against the on-page shenanigans limit for me.

Luckily, our couple’s future is made possible by a stunning possessive turn by Yusra, after Bashir pushes her away yet again: “That made him a coward. But he was her coward.” This line changes nothing except the reader’s perspective — but that perspective is all-important. For the ending to feel balanced, an author has to give the heroine something to counter the billionaire hero’s wealth and power. Bashir might have the money — and the yachts, and the hotels — but the book gives Yusra the right of claiming.

Lily Chu’s two most recent books, last year’s THE STAND-IN (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 384 pp. paperback, $14.99) and THE COMEBACK (Sourcebooks Casablanca, 400 pp., paperback, $16.99), also star wealthy heroes, but here, the heroines are the ones who are up to shenanigans. “The Stand-In” is about a young woman whose resemblance to a famous Chinese actress leads to her taking on that actress’s social events, and falling for the film’s sexy co-star. In “The Comeback,” a workaholic young lawyer embarks on a fling with her roommate’s visiting cousin, only to discover he’s a K-pop idol in hiding.

Gracie from “The Stand-In” recognizes action star Sam Yao right off; his celebrity is something she learns to look past in order to get to know him as an individual and potential lover. The inevitable crisis happens on a very personal level, in the hospital room of Gracie’s mother (who suffers from Alzheimer’s). In “The Comeback,” though, Ari and Jihoon are flirting and cooking and planning dream trips together long before she learns of his fame. When their bleak moment comes, it’s painfully public-facing: Ari believes Jihoon sacrificed their relationship to preserve his standing with his fans.

Both books ask, what if you dated someone absurdly famous?, but they have vastly different emotional arcs. “The Stand-In” pulls you into the spotlight immediately, playing on the tension between public and private lives; “The Comeback” allows something secret and vulnerable to flourish, and then blasts it with megawatts of toxic attention. I binged this unusually rich pair of rom-coms back-to-back in one whirlwind summer weekend.

Finally, in TJ Alexander’s CHEF’S CHOICE (Emily Bestler Books, 336 pp. paperback, $17.99), Luna, a down-on-her-luck personal assistant, pretends to be the girlfriend of a snooty French cooking dynasty heir, Jean-Paul, so they can team up for a high-stakes food competition. Fake dating is an incredibly popular premise, but this one hits a little different, as the kids say, because it has two trans leads. Through this lens, the tension between outward-facing and inwardly-felt authenticity has an urgent and intimate aspect.

The real fun of fake-dating novels is anticipating the moment when pretending starts to become passion, long before the characters are aware. You get those delicious moments of seeing past the narrator’s point of view — for instance, when Luna offers to introduce Jean-Paul to her friends, and he’s ecstatic, but then wilts a little when she reminds him that it will reinforce the illusion of their relationship. Luna finds this turnaround puzzling — but the reader basks in the understanding that J.P. has forgotten, for a moment, that this was all fake.

Winks like this can feel too zany for the real world, but Luna’s bubbly, breezy voice floats atop some very deep currents that keep things feeling realistic. The dread of public exposure also hits different for trans characters, after all. And of all our books this month, this is the story that has the boldest rejection of wealth for wealth’s sake. Which we should have expected. Wealth is part of the fun of the first three, but the core fantasy of fake dating isn’t money: It’s being known, and understood, and loved for who you are.

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