In the age of emoji and Instagram, Snapchat and texting, the handwritten love letter might be a thing of the past. But instead of bemoaning the loss, romance novels are reminding us that emotional intensity isn’t disappearing along with paper and pen. In fact, contemporary romances are underscoring technology’s most fascinating contradiction: What keeps people so separate IRL is providing endless possibilities for connection — even in a hellscape littered with dating apps, ghosting and unsolicited you-know-what pics.
Andie Christopher’s “Not the Girl You Marry” links ambitious event planner and romantic cynic Hannah Mayfield with journalist Jack Nolan, as both try to impress their bosses. So begins an impossible game of romance chicken: Hannah needs to prove she can be in a relationship, and Josh is writing an article on how to lose a girlfriend. (If you’re thinking gender swapped “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” you’re on the right track.) What ensues is a hilarious and horrifying story that harnesses the worst bits of modern dating (yes, there are pictures from a reluctant Jack trying and failing to send resilient, driven Hannah packing), and somehow all the best of it — the chemistry between Hannah and Josh is never hotter than when they are texting.
The best contemporary romance authors know that technology can inject a straight shot of chemistry into a relationship — even when partners are balancing life, work and saving the world. Adriana Herrera’s “American Love Story” is a romance between professor and Black Lives Matter activist Patrice Denis and Assistant District Attorney Easton Archer, two characters whose lives and work make a relationship nearly impossible. The story is incisive and modern, navigating the complexities of privilege, purpose and power, all while exploring intense passion. Here Herrera uses technology to intensify and personalize a private relationship that can’t be made public; a late-night FaceTime session leaves readers certain that this imperfect match is destined to be.
In her audiobook original, “The A.I. Who Loved Me” (Audible), Alyssa Cole explores the possibility of love in the near future — with near humans. Heroine Trinity Jordan finds herself falling in love with her neighbor’s charming-if-slightly-strange nephew, Li Wei, only to discover that he is a “biosynthetic humanoid,” a not-exactly-a-robot-robot. Li Wei can feel love and emotion, and he’s more than capable of feeling pleasure, but magnificently, he has no need for the emotional artifice in which humans find security. At one point, Trinity points out that he is alone, with no one to depend on, and he replies: “Lie detected. I have you.” It’s a wonderful moment for romance readers, and a hopeful one for technological skeptics. Perhaps technology is making us more ourselves?
But what about the relationships built on a hill of technological lies — filtered, angled selfies, cleansed Facebook posts, perfectly staged Instagram shots that force us into pristine personas that are impossible to keep up and impossible to escape? This is the question at the heart of Hannah Orenstein’s “Love at First Like.” Eliza Roth is one-part jewelry store owner, one-part Instagram influencer, and one-part messy rom-com heroine. When she accidentally posts a photo of an engagement ring on her Instagram account, things spiral out of control, and she’s forced to find a fake boyfriend to keep her reputation, her business and her life in order. Though Orenstein’s book straddles the line between romance and commercial fiction, it strikes a powerful chord with a heroine struggling for balance in 2019 — something that is made ever more challenging with technology everywhere.
Despite all the time we spend tethered to screens, the truth is that humans live with technology, not in it — at least for now. Kate Clayborn’s “Love Lettering” is a flawless representation of that truth. Heroine Meg Mackworth is an artisan hand-letterer with a passion for fast-disappearing hand-painted signs in New York City. After a wedding invitation (and wedding) gone wildly wrong, she finds herself falling for the former groom — uptight financier Reid Sutherland, who lives in a world of concrete, chrome and glass. What ensues is a lush, languid romance that merges the nostalgic past with the technological present. Reid and Meg’s relationship grows through a game in which they text photos of hand-painted letters from around the city, spelling words with images instead of letters. And in this tiny, magnificent, deeply romantic detail, readers are reminded that we are never more ourselves than when we are connecting with others, no matter the medium.
Sarah MacLean is a romance novelist and the host of Fated Mates, a romance novel podcast. Her most recent book is “Brazen and the Beast.”
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