Awards Season, a Fake Relationship, and Healing from Trauma in Cover Story by Rachel Lacey

Cover Story by Rachel Lacey cover

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What does Rachel Lacey’s new novel Cover Story have in common with the second-highest grossing film of 1992, The Bodyguard? A lot. Or nothing at all. If you’ve seen The BodyguardCover Story will definitely feel familiar. There really are only so many ways that a celebrity/bodyguard romance can go, after all.

Unlike Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, who were both nominated for Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Acting, Natalie Keane is going into awards season with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her performance in A Case for Love. She should be happy, but all she can think about is that the man who kidnapped her years earlier is about to be released from prison. Wanting to increase her security but not give the press a story in the process, Natalie and her team hatch the Romance Novel Plan of Plans: a fake relationship in which the fake girlfriend is a real bodyguard. 

Bodyguard Taylor Vaughn, newly cleared for duty after aggressively rehabbing Chekhov’s back injury, is more than happy to take on this unconventional job. Actually, hold on for just a second. In our world, the whole “celebrity falls in love with her bodyguard” would be seen as “unconventional.” In Lacey’s world(s), or in any world where romance novel plots are real, though, a love story where sparks fly that we know the ending of all too well wouldn’t be unconventional at all, would it?

Really, think about it. One of my favorite reads of 2023 was Stars Collide, which features Taylor in the role of bodyguard to Eden Sands (who also shows up in Cover Story). As romance readers, we’ve grown accustomed to this kind of serendipity. Or kismet. Call it what you want, but think about how many things in our world would have to go just right in order for our wildest dreams to come true. As I continue to become more familiar with the genre, I’m still trying to figure out if the escapism of the romance novel is helpful or not. What I’m noticing, I think, is that the escapism of the genre pairs very well with explorations of trauma. Fortunately, that is exactly what Lacey has to offer in Cover Story

I love author’s notes/acknowledgments that add to the novel in some meaningful way. In the Acknowledgements section for Cover Story, Lacey talks about the process of shifting the original direction of the novel to one that focuses more on safety and healing from trauma. If you’re not familiar, the 80s and most of the 90s were an interesting time for romance in films. Yes, there were plenty of romcoms, but there were also lots of romantic dramas/thrillers. The Bodyguard is, of course, one of those romantic drama/thrillers. (I had occasion to rewatch The Bodyguard not too long ago; considering that it was written in 1975 and filmed in the early 90s, the fact that it holds up at all is impressive.) It’s true that suspense can heighten a romance plot, but as a Sandra Bullock character once said, “Relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last.”

That is certainly not the case, however, in a romance world of kismet and HEAs. Who needs reality when you have serendipity? I love The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and I have warm feelings toward both of its remakes, In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and You’ve Got Mail (1998). Maybe I’ve always had a thing for the enemies-to-lovers trope. Who doesn’t love not being able to tell the difference between bickering and banter? (If done correctly, they’re the same thing.) What makes Read Between the Lines (2021), Lacey’s updated version of this story, so rewarding, though, is how—eventually—Rosie and Jane are able to help each other overcome deeply personal obstacles. You can also see Lacey trending in this direction in her earlier Midnight in Manhattan series.

Picking up Cover Story, I knew that I was going to find a story about two people who learned to treat each other with care. That’s what Lacey does so well, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed with her newest story. (I do find myself questioning why I’m especially drawn to plots that involve celebrities like Natalie Keane and Eden Sands, but that particular exploration is best kept for another day.) One thing I do find disappointing—Lacey’s fictional movies are just that: fictional.

I’m guessing that most people know The Bodyguard for the song that Dolly Parton gave to Whitney Houston. You know…the song. What I’m trying to say is that you don’t have to listen to the A-side of the The Bodyguard soundtrack while reading Cover Story, but I certainly recommend it. You can also listen to Lacey’s own playlist for the novel. Either way, if this is your first Rachel Lacey novel, be prepared for the adorable pets.

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date Is a Satisfying End to Ashley Herring Blake’s Bright Falls Series

the cover of  iris kelly doesn’t date

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First, a confession: I never liked romance novel covers. For the first thirty-five years of my reading life, I had no idea what went on between the covers of romance novels (well, okay, I had some idea), but if it had anything to do with what was on the cover—hard pass. Now, I am aware that some genre purists detest the illustrated cover trend, and I get that. For how many readers, though, has the illustrated cover been a gateway drug to the romance novel? It was for me. And that brings us to Delilah Green, the town of Bright Falls, and their creator, Ashley Herring Blake.  

From the very first chapter of Delilah Green Doesn’t Care (2022), I wanted to spend as much time as possible with Delilah Green, Claire Sutherland, Iris Kelly, Astrid Parker, and anyone else to whom Blake would introduce me. Yes, even Astrid—who, by the way, gives off such extreme Lemon Breeland vibes that I’ve since had to go back and rewatch a few episodes of Hart of Dixie. Blake balances the sibling tension between Delilah and Astrid with the main romance plot between Delilah and Claire, all the while developing the setting of Bright Falls, Oregon. Another confession: I have been trying to escape from coastal Georgia for a while now, hoping to end up in Oregon. If the Bright Falls that Blake wrote about was real, I would have moved there immediately. Delilah needs a GenX friend who can go toe-to-toe with her sarcasm and eyerolls, right?

Imagine my surprise when I discovered what was waiting for me in the sequel, Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail (2022). Blake introduces her readers to a new character, Jordan Everwood, who has arrived from—yes, serendipity and irony are real things, folks—coastal Georgia. (It is less surprising if you know that Herring lives in coastal Georgia. But no less serendipitous.) After a crushing breakup that challenged her sense of self, Jordan finds herself an unlikely match for Astrid. Astrid learns to loosen up (sort of), and everyone in Bright Falls is happy. Almost everyone. Something truly unfortunate happens to Iris Kelly in Astrid Parker, which serves as the setup for the third Bright Falls novel. 

Oh, and the plot of Astrid Parker revolves around an HGTV-esque renovation reality show. If that sort of thing matters to you.

Blake is not the first person to create a charming small town in which romance and hijinks occur. I know I said that I didn’t know what went on within the pages of romance novels, but I’ve seen Hart of Dixie, remember? For what it’s worth, though, I’d take Bright Falls over Bluebell, Virgin River, or even Stars Hollow (yes, Stars Hollow) any day. The best feature of Blake’s Bright Falls series is the way that she examines the trauma that her characters have had to face. Whether it’s the death of a parent, an overbearing mother, a devastating breakup, or a bad reputation, Blake takes her readers through what it means to be wounded by life and by the people in it. Trauma doesn’t just “scar” us; it lives on, at least until it is dealt with. Nothing, and I mean nothing—not even the illustrated covers—gets me more in a romance novel than one character telling another that their trauma is real and then helping them deal with it. 

Iris Kelly doesn’t date because anyone she dates will inevitably let her down. Blake provides us with a catastrophic example of this maxim in Astrid Parker. When we meet up with Iris at the beginning of Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date (2023), she’s done with it all: cheaters and liars, people who think being bisexual means being greedy or hypersexual, and people who are convinced that Iris does not have her life priorities straight. And that is how Iris ends up at Lush, a club in Portland, where she spots her next one-night stand. All is going to plan until the stranger responds to Iris’s seduction technique by vomiting all over her. 

I wonder sometimes if there are people out there who are as forgiving as the characters in romance novels. I’m sure there are, but I have no interest in the world of people who are securely attached. Another thing I’ve learned about what goes on between the covers of romance novels: no one seems to have a secure attachment style. And I am here for it. Because the fantasy (or heightened reality) of people helping each other process their traumas while finding love is one I can wholeheartedly support. 

I almost didn’t write this review because, as I suspected, it was too easy to discuss what has resonated with me in the Bright Falls series rather than actually review Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date. I would argue, though, that those are not two separate things. I felt a lot of sympathy for Iris, but Stevie’s anxiety is something that I have actually felt. (Not in the way that she felt it during her first interaction with Iris, I should clarify.) Stevie is a fawner who is still friends with her ex. She also lets people tell her what she thinks (or should think), and she struggles with who she is on multiple levels. I am much more interested in those issues than I am with the fake dating plot of the novel. As far as fake dating plots go, this one’s pretty good—it involves an extremely queer production of Much Ado about Nothing.

If that sort of thing matters to you.

What I am going to remember about the Bright Falls series is thinking about how it must have felt for Delilah, Jordan, and Stevie to (re)discover a magical place that is a thousand times better than Narnia. (There is a White Witch—it’s Astrid. And Delilah and Iris have some fierce manes. Also, Astrid makes a caramel dark chocolate seven-layer cake, so those Narnia kids can just keep their Turkish Delight to themselves.) I don’t want to leave Bright Falls, and Iris Kelly Doesn’t Date certainly lives up to the first two novels in the series. As a standalone novel, Iris Kelly would still merit a solid four stars. The Bright Falls series, however, is greater than the sum of its parts. Five stars for six people who I would be glad to know in real life.

If I have to, though, I’ll settle for Delilah Green cameos in every single one of Blake’s future novels.

Content warning: manipulation, panic attacks

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.