One of the best things about reading romance novels or watching romance movies is that you can almost always count on the presence of a trope.
Whether it’s enemies to lovers (think Darcy and Lizzy in “Pride and Prejudice” or, more recently, Season 2 of “Bridgerton”), fake relationships (a #BookTok favorite), good girl/bad boy (which always reminds me of that 5 Seconds of Summer song) or any other slightly cliché yet thoroughly enjoyable trope, you can usually find one — or a combination of a few — in the romance-genre art you consume.
Sarah Echavarre Smith’s upcoming novel, “The Boy with the Bookstore,” is unique in that it combines tropes in unusual, new ways and, by extension, tells a story that differs from the typical romantic formula. Using the dual perspectives of the female protagonist, Joelle, and the male love interest, Max, Smith artfully tells the romantic story of a baker and a bookstore owner falling in love.
Joelle, the baker, is the epitome of the sunshiney good girl; she gave up her dream of opening a bakery in France to help out her family when they were struggling financially. She has a huge crush on the bookstore owner next door — Max, a tattooed, secretive and thoughtful guy.
“The Boy with the Bookstore” is an undoubtedly fun and easy read — the story unfolds very naturally, and as Smith peels back the layers of both characters, the audience is bound to become more and more interested in Joelle and Max. The side characters, like Joelle’s family members and her best friend, Whitney, round out the story. Minor characters may have small roles in the actual story, but their presence always adds a new dimension to the main protagonists. In this case, Joelle’s family serves as a primary motivational factor in her career and as a foil to Max’s lack of familial affection, and Whitney is the best friend you always want by your side, offering advice, jokes and loyalty when Joelle needs it most. Needless to say, all these characters elevate the story from just another fun romance novel to one that is both entertaining and meaningful.
The most interesting thing about this story is that Joelle and Max are mutually pining for one another, but because of a renovation at their workplaces, they are forced to work in close proximity to one another, which brings out the worst in both of them. So this is a rare case of two people who like each other and then begin to cross the line into ‘enemy’ territory. Max uses Joelle’s oven to dry his clothes (gross), Joelle messes with Max’s book club and so on. Despite their initial attraction, they start to seriously irritate one another. Only after they’ve seen each other at their worst are they able to start a healthy relationship.
There’s something really relatable about the realism of their situation; romance in books and movies today is idealized in a lot of ways. Things are predictable and expected and, because of that, somehow glamorized and made seemingly perfect to the audience. I mean, there’s basically an unofficial romance formula that authors and creators use: Meet Cute, Montage, 80%-mark Conflict, Grand Romantic Gesture, Happily Ever After. In other words, the love interests meet, usually in a cute way, like in a coffee shop where their orders are switched or at some work event or on a blind date gone wrong. Then, you have the Montage, where you see them fall for each other — you know those scenes in the movies where some song plays in the background while the characters walk around together or sightsee or go on some trip where they try on floppy hats together? That’s the Montage. The saddest part is the 80%-mark Conflict where, approximately 80% of the way into the story, the characters see each others’ flaws and push each other away, but then you have the Grand Romantic Gesture where someone holds a boombox outside a window or buys a guitar or sings a meaningful song. All of which culminate in the Happily Ever After.
Some tropes alter the formula, of course; for instance, in the enemies to lovers trope, the Meet Cute usually isn’t so cute, and the Montage is filled with more tension and less fluff. But in general, there’s a formula that writers follow because it’s what the audience expects and what they want to see. But that doesn’t mean it’s realistic, by any means. Let’s just say it’s not exactly practical to expect someone to break out a Grand Romantic Gesture in the real world.
“The Boy with the Bookstore” follows the general formula, but by making Joelle and Max see each other’s flaws and imperfections early on in the story, it makes for a more realistic view of love. Yes, there’s a Happily Ever After at the end, but it feels more deserved because of their very real conflict from the start. They earn their Happily Ever After; it isn’t presented in some superficial, pretty packaging at the end of the story just to tie up loose ends.
I’m a huge fan of tropes (so much so that my sister and I once made a playlist of songs that followed tropes in their storylines). There’s something so nice about predictability and knowing you’ll get that Happily Ever After at the end of your story. But reading a book that breaks the formula can be refreshing. It helps you remember that everyone’s Montage looks different and every Happily Ever After is unique.
Daily Arts Writer Sabriya Imami can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.