Reviewed By Lidija Dorjkhand

Three recent romances include a deeply emotional journey by friends, a novel about the healing power of love, and a quirky debut novel that has been generating buzz.

“Good Luck with That” by Kristan Higgins.
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“Good Luck with That” by Kristan Higgins.

Good Luck with That
By Kristan Higgins
Berkley. 480 pp. $16

Kristan Higgins is known for novels that wring every emotion from you — you'll find yourself laughing one moment then dabbing tears later. Her latest, Good Luck with That, shows she hasn't lost her knack for spanning the emotional gamut. It is the story of three women who have been friends since they met as teens at a weight-loss camp. Fast friendships formed as they bonded over their shared weight issues.

But 16 years later, Georgia and Marley are contacted to rush to their ill friend Emerson. She lives in another state and they have not seen her in person in years. When they get to the hospital, they are shocked to see she has become morbidly obese and is dying. On her deathbed, she makes them promise that after her funeral they will read a letter she has written them.

They later discover Emerson had kept the list they made at that summer camp of all the things they would do when they were skinny. Emerson wanted them to follow through on all of them now: Be in a photo shoot, eat dessert in public, go running in a sports bra, hold hands with a cute guy in public. The promise they made to a dying friend makes them confront their longtime issues with self-image, confidence, and their relationships — with family as well as men.

Good Luck with That is not a traditional romance book. Its central relationship is the inner one that Georgia and Marley form personally as they learn to accept and love themselves. But, rest assured, Higgins has included true romance to swoon over.

Higgins uses her own struggles with body image and dysmorphia to show the shame and guilt and fear the women constantly fight.

The book is by turns hilarious, sad, cruel, heartbreaking, and sweet. I admit I went through several tissues during Georgia and Marley's emotionally charged journey. But you cheer as they work to conquer their fears and push to be seen as women of strength and value and beauty, worthy of love from themselves and others.

“Cottage by the Sea” by Debbie Macomber.
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“Cottage by the Sea” by Debbie Macomber.

Cottage by the Sea
By Debbie Macomber
Ballantine. 352 pp. $27

Debbie Macomber is a prolific author of contemporary romances that are heartfelt and warm. Several of her popular Christmas novels have been made into Hallmark Channel movies, and her Cedar Cove novels have been the basis of a Hallmark series. Cottage by the Sea brings us another enjoyable tale of blossoming romance and friendships.

Annie Marlow is suffering from depression more than a year after a terrible tragedy befell her family. She heads to Oceanside in the Pacific Northwest, where she spent many happy family vacations as a teenager. The sounds and scents of the beach lift her spirits, and she decides to move there.

Seth Keaton is stunned when he sees her on the beach. She is the auburn-haired girl he met one summer long ago. He never forgot the kindness she showed to a tongue-tied, awkward, and lonely teen; he looked for her in vain every summer after that.

Annie wants to rent the same cottage her family always used to stay in. During a visit to a real estate office, she runs into Keaton, the painter working on a renovation there. (She does not remember Keaton, who goes by his last name, from that one meeting so long ago.) The agent says it will be difficult getting the owner to rent out the cottage on her property because she is a recluse, but Keaton speaks up and says he knows the owner and can persuade her to agree to rent.

Annie learns that Mellie Johnson is an agoraphobe who has not left her cluttered house in years. Mellie is hostile when Annie first tries to contact her. Keaton, who does Mellie's shopping and jobs around the house, acts as a buffer between them.

Annie is grateful for Keaton's help, and she comes to look forward to their meetings. She is not intimidated by his huge frame or the fact that he rarely speaks. She feels comfortable in his company and finds herself attracted to him. She draws out the reticent Keaton, who learns to show his feelings more and more. (Full disclosure: I thought Keaton was a sweetheart — he can paint my rooms anytime.)

As a newcomer to the small town, Annie develops new friendships and touches the lives of many around her. Hers is not the only heart she helps to heal in Oceanside. Macomber's novels may not feature urgent passion, but the romance is still genuine and satisfying.

“The Kiss Quotient” by Helen Hoang.
“The Kiss Quotient” by Helen Hoang.

The Kiss Quotient
By Helen Hoang
Berkley. 336 pp. $15

The Kiss Quotient is Helen Hoang's impressive debut novel. Stella Lane has not been having success romantically. She is 30 but is socially awkward. She has Asperger's — she is on the autism spectrum. Easy chit-chat eludes her, other people's humor confuses her. She is painfully sensitive to smells and sounds. But she is a whiz at her job. She is an econometrician, analyzing data to create economic models. She is comfortable with numbers and algorithms — people, not so much. The few times she has had sex were a disaster.

She decides maybe she just needs practice with a professional who can show her how to like sex better so she'll have a better chance of finding and keeping a boyfriend. So she hires a male escort.

Michael Phan is a gorgeous man of mixed Vietnamese and Swedish heritage. Stella finds him kind and patient, even when she presents him with a dispassionate lesson plan. As they begin, she relaxes with him and even begins to enjoy kissing him. But when he tries to progress things, Stella has a panic attack. So they just spend the rest of the night watching TV and cuddling, and Stella falls asleep

The next morning, she decides he is the one with whom she wants to continue her lessons. Michael at first refuses, saying he doesn't do repeat dates, but after Stella lays out her logical arguments, he gives in and agrees to three more sessions.

They begin an amusingly awkward and increasingly sensual partnership that grows beyond a business arrangement. Stella decides that instead of sex lessons she wants lessons on how to be in a relationship, and she offers to pay well.

Michael accepts because he really likes Stella. But he also can use the money. We learn he had to turn to escorting three years earlier because of some huge bills involving his family, who don't know what he does on Friday nights.

With Michael, Stella gains confidence as she steps out of her comfort zone and learns to be intimate. Michael appreciates that she does not look down on him and that she treats him as an equal. They begin to fall in love, but Stella still has not told Michael she is autistic, and he doesn't believe she would ever fall for an escort.

Helen Hoang, herself a person on the autism spectrum, has based Stella's condition on her own. She makes us understand Stella's struggles and empathize with her fears. Although it begins with a crude business proposition between two flawed people, Hoang's novel is an ultimately sweet tale of love that grows from friendship.