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Swap Your Flimsy Beach Books for These 7 Provocative Must-Reads

These picks are deeply fascinating page-turners.

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illustration of woman reading surrounded by books, summer reads
Julianna Brion
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Summer reads are often lightweight romances that leave you as soon as you as finish the last page. Instead, whether you’re sitting under a beach umbrella or savoring a sunset at the lake, dig into these more substantial love stories, books that range from steamy and hopeful to provocative and heartbreaking. This list includes one of my own!

Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story by Leslie Jamison, February 2024

This instant New York Times bestseller is Jamison’s heartfelt, funny and sometimes painful memoir of how she fell out of love with her husband just as she was falling into love with her brand-new baby and into a new romance. About sex and midnight feedings and the hunger we all have for connection, Splinters is a deeply intimate drill-down into how love doesn’t always turn out to be what we expect it to be and how hope is always available. Impossible to put down.

Good Material by Dolly Alderton, January 2024

This luscious Read with Jenna pick is a smart, sexy romp of a read, focused on love lost and then found. Standup comic Andy loves Jen, who seems to adore him, too. But then her heart abruptly closes up shop. And what’s still-madly-in-love Andy to do? His answer: figure out what went wrong, so then he can adroitly step back into the relationship and make it right. But as readers learn Jen’s side of the story, the answer might not be so clear. Author Alderton has been compared to Nora Ephron because of her witty take on love and her laugh-out-loud dialogue. A snappy and relatable book that’s as delicious as chilled wine by the pool.

Normal People by Sally Rooney, February 2020

Named one of the ten best novels of the decade by Entertainment Weekly, and made into an Emmy-nominated Hulu series, Normal People always seems to touch a nerve and spark emotion. Connell and Marianne meet when they are young and living in a small town. When they both get to university, they become irresistibly drawn to each other. But while the sex is wild and passionate, and their love deep, they cannot make a go of it. While Marianne begins to get self-destructive, Connell begins to question everything he thought he knew. Can they save each other, or is it too late? A terrific, tantalizing read for anyone who ever wondered what might have been.

Leaving by Roxana Robinson, February 2024

What’s more wonderful than a book featuring an older woman in a passionate romance? Robinson’s smart new novel follows Sarah, who recently went through a painful divorce but has a great career. She finds that her passion reignites when she runs into Warren, the man she loved in college — who is on the verge of divorcing his wife, himself. All seems workable this magical second time around, until the adult daughters of both interfere, in particular Warren’s daughter. She gives her dad a “me or her” ultimatum, leading to a devastating conclusion. Searingly passionate and thought-provoking, this is one read that’s impossible to forget. Bring tissues to the beach.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, October 1847

I swooned over this love story when I was a teenager, and I still love it. Jane is a smart, supposedly plain woman who, having no money or property of her own, must go to work for the mysterious Mr. Rochester, who seems to have his first mad wife locked up in the attic. What was so revolutionary about this book was that Jane was one of our first feminists, independent and determined to have others know her true, considerable worth. Rochester might be another brooding hero of the times, but tragedy makes him realize his flaws and helps him recognize who he can be with an extraordinary woman like Jane at his side.

Bonus points, you may want to tuck in a companion book, Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, published in 1966. It's the same story told in the voice of Rochester’s wife!

Mighty Gorgeous: A Little Book About Messy Love by Amy Ferris, October 2023

What would you tell your younger self about love? Ferris turns back time to celebrate the loves in her life. She takes us through paralyzing depression, teen pregnancy, abortion, her father’s arrest and the bad men in her life, then comes to recognize that self-love might just be the greatest, most necessary gift of all. Fierce and funny, and as bite-sized as a box of chocolates, this is a Valentine to the embracing of your mistakes and living and loving as fully as you can.

With or Without You by Caroline Leavitt, June 2021

All long-term relationships change, but what if the man you loved is suddenly a stranger, and not only that, but you become a stranger to yourself, too? Practical nurse Stella and fading rocker Simon have been a devoted couple for years, but lately, their relationship is getting fractious. After a night of drinking, Stella falls into a coma, and when she wakes, she has a new personality and a strange new artistic talent. This transformation gives her success she isn’t sure she wants, and the fame that Simon still is desperate to have. A gripping and complex novel about love, loyalty and what we owe the ones we care about.

What's your favorite recent read? Let us know in the comments below.

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