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moira macdonald

Here are four recently published books I’ve read and enjoyed this past month, each of which had something to say about that heart-shaped emotion.

The most obvious fit for a Valentine’s theme was Jasmine Guillory’s “The Proposal” (Berkley, $15 paperback), a straight-up contemporary romance that’s as likable as it’s unsurprising. Nikole, a Los Angeles freelance writer who hates filled doughnuts, beaches, carrot cake, rompers and people who don’t use Oxford commas, is horrified when her short-term boyfriend surprises her with a scoreboard proposal at a Dodgers game, going down on one knee “dangerously close to the puddle of spilled beer.” This guy — an annoying actor who hasn’t even yet figured out how to spell her name correctly — is clearly out; a nice doctor named Carlos, who helps her scoot away from a camera crew, just might be in.

It’s a charming little meet-cute, kicking off a novel that’s the book equivalent of a movie rom-com: light, sweet, enjoyably uncomplicated. You know exactly how things are going to work out, and they do, because that’s how rom-coms work. 

Somewhat less pleasant (though just as much fun, in a different way) is the icy world of “The Wife Between Us” (St. Martin’s Griffin, $16.99 paperback) by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen. A significant segment of the crime-fiction world is still happily ensconced in “Gone Girl” territory — female-focused psychological thrillers, unreliable narrators, grab-the-steering-wheel-in-a-panic twists — and this book is a proud citizen. In alternating chapters, we meet Nellie, a sweet Manhattan preschool teacher eagerly anticipating her wedding to the handsome hedge-fund manager who has swept her off her feet, and Vanessa, the wife he tossed aside, who’s trying to put her life back together but can’t shake an obsession with her young replacement.

Your basic love triangle? Hardly. Hendricks and Pekkanen have a real knack for plot-spinning, and “The Wife Between Us” unfolds in breathlessly ominous chapters, occasionally pausing for a narrative karate-chop.  

“This Is Not a Love Song” is the title of Brendan Mathews’ short-story collection (Little, Brown, $26), many of which have to do with love, in its presence or absence. I’ve been waiting for something new from Mathews since his irresistible 2017 debut, the rollicking 1930s adventure “The World of Tomorrow”; this book, a collection of previously published work, finds him in a more somber mood.

But if I had to ask a book to be my Valentine this month, it would be Elizabeth McCracken’s whimsical, enchanting “Bowlaway” ($27.99, HarperCollins); it’s the sort of novel with which you fall in love. McCracken, author of the National Book Award-nominated “The Giant’s House,” hasn’t published a novel in 17 years, and “Bowlaway” arrives with a sense of fanfare, of red-velvet curtains parting before an eagerly hushed audience. And then, off we go, into a multigenerational tale of the fortunes of a family, a small New England city named Salford (“hard north of Boston, with a sliver of coastline just big enough to ramshackle the houses and web the occasional foot”), and a six-lane bowling alley opened there, in the early years of the 20th century.

Moira Macdonald is a reviewer for The Seattle Times.

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