Emily Henry’s Latest Contemporary Romance Will Transport You to Your Happy PlaceBooks Reviews Emily Henry
We’re far enough into this ongoing pandemic that it’s fascinating to see potential micro-trends popping up in fiction (aside from the clear delineation between those authors that did and did not set their novels in our covid timeline). One that stands out this year is group getaways in contemporary romances: Laura Kay’s Wild Things sees a group of friends buying a house in the English countryside—the lockdown dream—while Emily Henry’s latest reunites college buddies at the eponymous Happy Place in coastal Maine. But the requisite twist is that one of the couples, surgical resident Harriet Kilpatrick and carpenter Wyn Connor, have secretly broken off their engagement months ago without clueing in the most important people in their lives. And with their beloved cottage getting sold off, making this the final summer, they don’t want to burden the others with their breakup. So they’ll have to fake-date (fake-engage?) for a week with no one the wiser… what one might consider the lockdown nightmare.
It’s such a delicious premise for the fourth book from Henry, recently profiled in Vulture as having cracked the modern romance novel formula with her willingness to explore the darker anxieties that weigh down our need for love and connection. What’s especially interesting here is watching Henry fine-tune her own particular recipe for romance, tweaking similar elements from past books and recombining them into innovative new narratives. As I noted in last year’s review of Book Lovers, all of her novels are set over the summer, yet each utilizes the sunshine and breaks and vacations differently. Happy Place has the most in common with People We Meet on Vacation: a story that spans a decade, a summer getaway as the antidote to real-world stresses and disappointments, a way to check in on the same people and see if they still mean the same things to each other as more and more responsibilities and distractions crowd into the relationships they established when they were younger and more carefree.
Because for all the time that Happy Place spends in the present, it spends an equal amount of time apart from it—in the past and in other happy places, starting with when Harry met her roommates-turned-soulmates Sabrina and Cleo in freshman year of college. As various members of the original trio depart for semesters abroad or internships, they invite in a revolving door of roommates who happen to become Sabrina and Harry’s eventual partners: suave Parth, and his flirty bud Wyn. Rounding out the group is Cleo’s girlfriend Kimmy, the kind of bubbly person who fits into the dynamic so well that it’s hard to believe she was never there from the start. And as graduation—and grad school, and med school, and dropping out of school—steers each of the six into new orbits, what keeps bringing them back together is their summers at Sabrina’s family’s mansion-sized cottage in (fictional but affectionately detailed) Knott’s Harbor, Maine.
The book also wisely visits the unhappy places, the houses that never became homes, and the dark spirals into which we descend so deep that we can’t fathom finding our way back up. Supposed relationship milestones, like meeting the parents, instead reveal how happiness can be bound up in self-sacrifice, with love and partnership and commitment becoming a zero-sum game. Henry provides a multifaceted examination of this dilemma, through the lenses of lovers and spouses and parents and best friends.
But even this final summer, the portions demarcated as Real Life, is split into parallel experiences: Harry and Wyn trying to pull one over on their closest friends, and in the process stoking their own sexual tension; contrasted with Harry’s relatable confusion at not understanding why Wyn broke her heart months ago and what he wants from her now.
Fake dating is one of the more high-concept romance premises to pull off, but Henry grounds it in Harry and Wyn’s history, as well as their trust that their friends will be so busy clinging to nostalgia in their final week at the cottage that they’ll mentally spackle over any perceived tension with rose-colored memories of when the two first got together. Because those flashbacks are so authentic to the early-20s experience of first serious relationships and the trickiness of simultaneously twining your life around someone else’s while still learning enough about yourself and what you want. Experiencing their week of sham normalcy has even greater depth when contrasted alongside the ten years that forged the relationship that they’re now playacting. And that makes it even more fun when Harry is grinding on Wyn’s lap at the local dive bar, or Wyn is hamming up their blissful affianced status in the cottage pool.
But this book isn’t just about the main couple, it’s about the people whose feelings they’re trying to protect after they’ve already failed at protecting one another from their vastly diverging life paths.
Often in romances, even the strongest friend group can’t help but feel like fodder for future pairings—like even if the foils and confidantes are fully fleshed-out, it’s often (very smart!) groundwork being laid for the next installment. Not so here, where both Sabrina and Parth, and Cleo and Kimmy, possess their own engaging dynamics with micro and macro tensions that do and don’t include Harry and Wyn. It brings to mind the commiserating faculty foursome in Christina Lauren’s My Favorite Half-Night Stand, whose rhythms and rituals are so lived-in that reading almost feels like eavesdropping… but you can’t stop yourself from listening in.
The cottage is almost its own character, as well, Henry so lovingly details it through Harry’s key memories. You can so clearly envision the wine cellar in which occurs a pivotal moment in their early relationship (and, one could argue, an even more crucial development in the present), or the room with the two twin beds upon which they first fall in love.
As in Book Lovers, Henry has again established a compellingly tense will-they-won’t-they that makes, honestly, a more convincing argument for Harry and Wyn not to stay together. Though their friends are clearly family, their blood families also undeniably influence their relationship in all of its phases; Henry delves unflinchingly into how even supposedly innocuous neglect from parents can shape an impressionable child’s sense of safety when it comes to future relationships. The ways in which Harry’s flawed self-preservation ripples into the relationships that actually matter to her will keep you following her from place to place hoping she’ll find her way through.
Only Emily Henry can write a book where the message is “the happy place is the friends we made along the way” and make it not hopelessly cheesy. It’s in fact a heavy read, but the kind where you’ll look back with a teary-eyed smile.
Happy Place is available now from Berkley Books
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, NPR Books, Den of Geek, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter