Tara reads a lot of lesbian romances. You can catch her regularly reviewing at The Lesbian Review and Curve Magazine and hear her talk about lesbian fiction (including romance) on her podcast Les Do Books. You can also hit her up for recommendations on Twitter (@taramdscott).
If you were to ask me for a good place to start reading lesbian romance, Melissa Brayden would be at or near the top of my list. With almost 10 novels and novellas, her backlist is totally glommable without being daunting, and it’s full of fun, flirty dialogue, amazing kissing, and just enough angst to keep things interesting. Her book Kiss the Girl has been one of my very favourite romances since it came out a few years ago, and her latest offering, Strawberry Summer, is so damn good that it blows that whole backlist out of the water.
Margaret Beringer is so not one of the cool kids in her high school. If she can just stay unnoticed by her classmates and make it a few more weeks until summer break, she’ll only have one year left before she can take off for college. Courtney Carrington comes to her history class for the first time just as Margaret is about to give a presentation (the most terrifying of endeavors for a kid striving for invisibility) and somehow notices her. Courtney doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal to jump the popularity divide between Margaret and her classmates, and never cares that Margaret’s a farm kid and not one of the elite.
Courtney is quickly moved back out of town by her mother before she and Margaret can do more than kiss, but she gives her the parting gift of the new name, Maggie, and the promise of friendship with some of those previously unreachable classmates. When Courtney comes back the next summer, their chemistry is stronger than ever and they fall into a relationship so beautiful that it manages to survive each year as they part for separate colleges, only to meet up again in the summers. But their breakup and its circumstances leave Maggie closed off, with scars that she isn’t willing to examine too closely as she trudges ahead with the rest of her life. Five years later, the last thing she expects or wants is to see Courtney back in Tanner Peak, especially when it turns out that there’s something still there—no matter how hard she tries to push those feelings aside.
Strawberry Summer is told in the first person from Maggie’s perspective, which I know isn’t everyone’s favourite, but is a perfect narrative choice for this book. When Maggie and Courtney are in high school, it feels like a YA story. When they’re in their college years, it feels like a new adult romance with all the sexiness and freshness of young love that can be expected from that genre. And when they reunite for that second chance in their late twenties, it feels like a contemporary romance between two fully formed adults. And yet, because Maggie is guiding us through all of it, the story never feels disjointed. We’re just seeing the style adjust naturally alongside Maggie as she matures and grows from that lonely, awkward girl to the successful, confident, and eventually even happy woman she becomes. The only drawback is that we never get Courtney’s perspective and everything she does is interpreted through Maggie’s eyes. Even that didn’t bother me too much because Courtney is demonstrative and shares enough of what she’s thinking and feeling that we can have a complete idea of who she is as a person and a partner.
Second chance romances are also a bit of a mixed bag for me, especially when we’re taken all the way through the original romance. I find them to be much angstier than many other romances, often even unpleasant, because the whole point is to join a couple as they reunite after a painful separation and a whole bunch of time apart. Knowing all of that, I kind of went into this book with a hand over my eyes and that turned out to be totally unnecessary. The second chance aspect worked for me because, when those painful circumstances happened, they didn’t feel gratuitous and they made sense. Being taken from first meeting to friendship to lovers to breakup to reuniting and (finally!) makeup isn’t just about the romance between Maggie and Courtney. It’s also about them coming of age, figuring out who they are as adults, and becoming those people in a way that makes sense for themselves, rather than each molding to become the right person for the other.
Strawberry Summer is the perfect book to pick up as we’re looking forward to the longer, hotter days ahead. It’s a tribute to first love and soulmates and growing into the person you’re meant to be. I feel like I say this each time I read a new Melissa Brayden offering, but I loved this book so much that I cannot wait to see what she delivers next. This is a book I will read over and over again, enjoying each stage of their lives just as much every time.