I always thought I have been pretty undiscriminating when it comes to book genres. I would read my mother’s hand-me-down Jackie Collins and my ex’s Sophie Kinsella books, so I was quite surprised when I was told that most of what I read before (which I thought are romantic works), does not actually belong in the romance genre. They are considered romance-adjacent—works with heavy elements of romance, but they are not the main focus. Naturally, I became curious: what then is a “true” romance?” How different is it from what I’ve been reading? Why is The Song of Achilles or The Princess Bride not considered romance?
It took awhile for me to settle on a choice. I solicited advice from my book club members, and after processing dozens of recommendations, I finally settled on The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams which has a straight male protagonist (though we still get the lady’s perspective), and is about a guy reading romance for the first time (like me). The premise is this: a very successful Major League baseball player is facing divorce after rowing with his wife over his discovery that she had been faking her orgasms through pretty much their entire marriage. Desperate to patch things up, he got himself initiated into a secret romance book club made up of his teammates and other dudebros who were studying romance novels to help them navigate their own marriages and relationships.
Right from the start, The Bromance Book Club feels like a comfortable old sock to me because it deals with a scenario I am very familiar with: being married with children. It started with a lesson that I learned myself long ago in my own marriage, and that lesson is “love is not enough”, something that Gavin, our hapless protagonist scoffed at,
When he read those words from Irena, Gavin had grumbled under his breath and nearly closed the book. What kind of romance novel declared love meaningless? Wasn’t the entire point of all romance novels to prove that love conquers all?
Son, you are about to be schooled, I told the page.
The book that Gavin was tasked with reading by his buddies is called Courting the Countess, a Regency romance that bears a great resemblance to Gavin’s own marital issues (and sometimes, resembles it too much). While we don’t get to read that book in full, we are treated to key chapters from it whenever they become relevant to Gavin’s quest to win back his wife, Thea. Because of the conceit of The Bromance Book Club, we get a lot of meta-commentary on romance tropes and the romance genre itself, which is interesting to a romance newbie like me. I must admit that the way some of these are conveyed comes across as sounding a bit unnatural coming out of the mouths of these big buff men’s men athletes, as if the author hijacked their mouths, but I told myself that they have been reading romance for a long time.
Another thing that made me wince a little is the amount of gender essentialism that is present in the book. All women are like this. All men are like this. Very Men-are-from-Mars-Women-are-from-Venus-sy. A lot of my female friends are from feminist and activist circles, and the main messaging I have been receiving from real life women for years is that this is not true. But still, that is crucial to The Bromance Book Club‘s premise—romance novels unlocks the secret language of women, which all women are familiar with because all of them reads romance novels apparently.
“But Thea doesn’t even read this kind of books!”
The guys exchanged glances and burst out laughing. Del patted him on the back. “Keep telling yourself that.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this in the house.”
Derek Wilson, a local businessman he recognized from his TV commercials, spoke up. “She have one of those e-reader things?”
“Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. I think so.”
“It’s full of romance novels. Trust us.”
I won’t spoil the plot, but suffices to say, it ended happily (which I learned is a mandatory requirement in the romance genre). I will admit that when I first learned about that, I was sceptical. How does one build tension when there is a foregone conclusion? I am a reader who absolutely lives for the reveal that recontextualises the entire story, and any story that manages to surprise me can reliably get high marks from me. I am happy to report that The Bromance Book Club manages to achieve that. I could see Ms Adams laying the breadcrumbs leading up to it, both in the main story and in the book-within-the-book, and it climaxed satisfyingly. Emotionally I mean, but there’s no shortage of that other kind too.
Speaking of which, this was what I wrote down in my notes when I was reading this book:
Okay, this is straight up porn.
I am no prude. I have read more sex scenes than I can count in hundreds of novels in my lifetime, but I wasn’t expecting the sex to be quite so graphic, sparing no details. There are ENTIRE chapters dedicated to Gavin and Thea hitting the Home Run, pardon the expression. One of the first times it happened in the book, I could immediately see why Gavin struck out for so many years. He was awful at it, and placed a lot of performance anxiety on his partner.
And as expected, since this book was written by a woman for women, I was prepared to be assaulted by non-stop descriptions of what a volcanic smoke-show Gavin is and I was not disappointed. This book told me everything, through Thea’s gaze, from his beard to the that valley between his pecs and that “V” that points to his baseball bat. Thea is obviously very attracted to Gavin, and even when she was mad at him, she couldn’t help checking him out. It seemed inevitable to me that she would eventually cave. Also, is “slanting one’s mouth” a common expression in the romance genre or is it an author specific quirk? Because almost every time characters kiss in this book, they “slant” their mouth or lips (which I take as them tilting their heads as they close in).
All in all, I found this to be a very breezy read that I could knock back in one evening. I can see how some hardcore romance fans can devour two or three of these in a day. I was glad to see that Gavin wasn’t the only person who had to work on himself and undergo transformation. There are a lot of profoundly astute observations about the dynamics of married life that I have personally experienced or told to me, and in that, I believe this book managed to prove its own thesis successfully—romance novels CAN be instructive. The Bromance Book Club is an excellent introduction to romance for new initiates, seeing as how it discusses the genre itself on a meta-conceptual level, introduces basic romance tropes, and plays with them within the narrative itself.
Some minor spoilers are in the postscripts.
P.S. There is a moment that felt abusive to me—one in which Gavin used blackmail to get what he wanted by threatening to accelerate their divorce and thus ruining their daughters’ Christmas with a custody battle, and contest for ownership of their house. That actually made me think that Thea was right in wanting to ditch this dipshit (and I still somewhat do).
P.P.S. I also thought that the twin girls, especially the more sensitive one, will have a bigger role in the story but they seemed to be sidelined towards the end.
P.P.P.S. One of the things the novel brought up early is the idea that in a marriage, “love is not enough“, and it is one that I strongly agree with. So I was quite disappointed when the novel reversed that, saying that love is enough—always enough—after all.