Perhaps summer’s ephemeral nature is what inspires us to embrace the beach read. We tell ourselves that these twisted plots and wild characters are literary ice cream sundaes — extravagant treats that aren’t as calorie-laden when we’re wearing flip flops. So we forgo the heavy hardcovers and turn to paperbacks, gobbling up mysteries and thrillers and science fiction and romance. Perhaps especially romance, because summer is the season for the stuff, isn’t it? “Summer Lovin’,” Danny and Sandy sang to us once, summer days . . . and, oh, those summer nights.
There’s no romance so extravagantly rewarding as Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Nobody’s Baby But Mine (1997). Jane Darlington is a professor of physics whose brilliance has inhibited her social success. At 34, she takes matters into her own hands and decides to become a single mother. She resists the fertility clinic option, however, as she’s terrified of cursing her baby with genius; she wants an average guy. A less-than-average one, even. Enter Cal Bonner, the quarterback for the local National Football League team. When she gets pregnant and her plot is found out, Cal is expectedly furious. What ensues is one of the best summer reads of all time. “I’m a pig,” Cal says at one point, as he’s pulling Jane close for some serious smooching, “If I were you, I’d tell me to get lost.” Jane can’t, and neither can we — this is one of those books that fill up with sand and greasy sunscreen fingerprints because they simply won’t be put down.
Kristan Higgins writes hilarious, deeply satisfying romances set throughout coastal New England, and her Somebody to Love (2012) must be on any classic beach-reads list. When impoverished Parker Welles finds herself in Maine after inheriting a falling-down summer house, her friend Lucy speaks for all of us: “You should have a fling. A summertime romance with some hot sailing dude or a fisherman. I’m thinking George Clooney in ‘The Perfect Storm.’ ” Parker is quick to remind Lucy that “his character dies,” but the idea is sound. She enters into an unlikely summer fling with her father’s lawyer, a man for whom she doesn’t care but who is quite handy around the ramshackle house. He’s handy in other ways, too. . . . By the end, we’re hoping Parker’s summer, and our own, will last all year.
Why not sell the car and buy a little cottage on the beach and eat ice cream and fried clams forever? Tessa Dare gives readers a glimpse of that life in her Spindle Cove series, set in a small coastal village in Regency-era Britain. This is a village to which families send their unmarriageable daughters to live out their days. The first of the series is A Night to Surrender (2011), which begins with idyllic “Spinsters Cove,” as the place is nicknamed, being shattered by the arrival of the Victor Bramwell, Earl of Rycliff, on the hunt for men to join his makeshift militia. The town’s unofficial mayoress, Susanna Finch, will do anything to keep Bramwell from ruining her utopia, and the ensuing battle of wills is as charming as it is sexy.
But these warm months weren’t always regarded as paradise. “I loathe London in the summer,” Leo Hathaway announces in Tempt Me at Twilight (2009), by Lisa Kleypas. Certainly, Leo has a point. In the 19th century, there was nothing worse than urban summers, as anyone in a sultry 21st-century city on garbage-day knows. Leo and his sister Poppy — followed closely by her new husband, the ruthless hotelier Harry Rutledge — leave London for the countryside, where Kleypas delivers a wonderful romp and a magnificent love story. Poppy tempts Harry with the promise of summer: “No stack of managers’ reports. No one rapping at the door. No questions or emergencies. . . . Today, you belong to me.” He gives in — with pleasure.
Alas, summer sun can’t last forever. The days will grow cooler and shorter, and our skin will once again pale. No one understands this better than J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood, a collective of vampire warriors sworn to save the world from the Omega, the big bad to end all big bads. This series is saltwater taffy in print — a thoroughly addictive treat. It begins with Dark Lover (2005), the story of the vampire king, Wrath, and his mate, Beth, who doesn’t know she’s a vampire. “Maybe I’ll wake up,” she says when she does learn the truth about herself, thinking it’s all a wild dream. But she doesn’t really want that, and neither do we, because as long as she’s a vampire, we’re happy, turning the pages and grateful for the light-weight paperback as we hold it over our heads for hours at a time, blocking out the summer sun and giving ourselves a telltale, rectangular tan line.
MacLean is the author of seven historical romances, the most recent of which is “No Good Duke Goes Unpunished.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the name of a character in “Dark Lover.” This version has been updated.