Spicy Romance: Fancy Boys and Ghost Girls

by Marina Barakatt
published in Reading

A couple of years ago, deep into my journey for spicy romances that don’t center heterosexual relationships, I stumbled upon what I hold up as the gold standard of romance: One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston, published in 2021. I loved it. I read it first on my Kindle as a library book, then went out and bought a physical copy. It’s the sweet, sexy, funny, and charming story of a woman newly relocated to Brooklyn and the girl she falls in love with, who just so happens to have been stuck on the Q line of the NYC subway for 40 years.

I was aware that Casey McQuiston’s debut novel was the wildly popular Red, White, and Royal Blue (published in 2019), a romance between the First Son of the US and the Prince of England. I didn’t read it until recently, as I have less interest in consuming romance between men (not to say that m/m romances aren’t important! But I can really only make myself care when there’s at least one woman involved. It’s a self-insert thing). But I went into it with high expectations, given how much I loved One Last Stop and how big of a reputation Red, White, and Royal Blue has for being sexy. I was slightly disappointed, and I’ve been thinking a lot about why.

One Last Stop is spicy. August and Jane, the love interests, have undeniable chemistry and the added frustration of not being able to be as physical as they would like, given that the only time they see each other is on the Q train. The tension is present in spades, and when they discover that making out helps Jane remember her past (and the many girls she made out with), there’s an excitement in getting to be sexual while trying and failing to deny their romantic feelings. It makes for a swoon-worthy read, and when August and Jane finally do have sex, on an empty train car in the middle of the night, it’s literally electric. The author isn’t as explicit as some others, but the book is certainly not closed-door, either. What I love about these scenes is that, instead of focusing on the purely physical and the anatomy of what’s happening, we are focused on the characters’ emotions. 

Red, White, and Royal Blue doesn’t have quite the same impact. Alex and Henry, the love interests, are charming and gorgeous and absolutely adorable together, but the sex scenes don’t hit quite as hard. It could be that there’s less tension – yes, their romance is secret, but being that both of them have access to near-infinite resources, it’s easy for them to meet in Paris for a night, or for one of them to find an excuse to be on the other’s side of the Atlantic. And once they get going, they stay going, with a good number of sex scenes in the first half of the book alone. Now, I am never going to complain about a higher-than-average number of sex scenes, but without the tension present in One Last Stop, these scenes feel slightly outside of the plot. McQuiston uses the same technique in Red, White, and Royal Blue in which she doesn’t describe the sex act so much as leads us into it and assumes we can figure out what’s going on while describing Alex and Henry’s big, emotional moments. It doesn’t work quite as well, and sometimes her description is vague and circuitous enough that I wasn’t actually sure what exactly was happening – there were orgasms and there was love, both of which are wonderful, but sometimes it’s nice to know what happens in the lead up to those things.

There’s a few different things to consider here, for why one works so much better than the other. One is certainly personal preference: I enjoy reading women’s stories more than men’s. Additionally, I’ve always felt that it’s easier to care about a smaller-scale problem – you have to save the world? Yawn. You have to save your neighborhood? I’m interested. The emotional stakes are high and compelling in both books, but, plot-wise, I’m less emotionally invested in whether two of the world’s strongest institutions (the American presidency and the British monarchy) are going to be able to work out their differences than I am in whether a scrappy Brooklyn girl is going to be able to get her girlfriend off a train. I also think that we’re watching  McQuiston grow as a writer. They incorporate sex into the plot much more in One Last Stop, and the emotional descriptions are much more impactful during those scenes. I’m definitely looking forward to their next one.

Marina is a West Coast native living in Washington, DC. She loves writing anything, from sci-fi to creative non-fiction to romance, often drawing inspiration from the frequent travel required by her day job. Her work has appeared in such literary magazines as DistrictLit and Corner Bar Magazine. When she’s not writing, you can find her hosting bar trivia, baking something involving peaches, or bothering her extremely patient dog, Daisy. You can read more of her work at marinabarakatt.com and find pictures of Daisy at @marinabarakatt.

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