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Romance book review: two modern love stories with a difference

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Royals by Emma Forest and Find Me by André Aciman are both stories of intense connection. But which is better? Two Stylist writers battle it out.

ROYALS

Stylist’s sub-editor Meena Alexander fights for Royals by Emma Forrest (£12.99, Bloomsbury), out now.

I am the Goldilocks of romance novels: I like my love stories not too hot, but not too cold. Bring on the passionate love affairs, yes, but show the dark and the messy bits, too.

In André Aciman’s blockbuster debut Call Me By Your Name (2007), Elio and Oliver’s heady romance dances along the borders of fantasy but never tips into sheer ridiculousness (bar, perhaps, that peach scene). But Aciman fails to maintain that fine balance in Find Me, a book full of melodramatic professions of love yet devoid of the one thing we’re hoping for: an ending for Elio and Oliver we can truly believe in.

In Royals, on the other hand, the grim reality of the main characters’ lives is exactly what makes their intense love shine so brightly, like a light in the darkness.

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Jasmine is a 19-year-old heiress who lives alone in a Notting Hill mansion and harbours enough childhood trauma to fuel several attempts at taking her own life, the last of which leads her to meet Steven on a hospital ward. He is a working-class Jewish boy who “hasn’t decided” if he’s gay yet, but does know he wants to be a fashion designer with enough money to escape the East End and his violent father.

Jasmine has the kind of privilege that allows her to check in to a five-star hotel in Paris because she fancies a fresh croissant, or buy a South Kensington townhouse on a whim, a lifestyle Steven finds intoxicating and disorientating in equal measure. He is immediately drawn to Jasmine’s innate glamour, and their relationship – though platonic – is laced with the kind of sexual tension and emotional connection usually reserved for the loftiest of romances.

The ambiguity of Jasmine and Steven’s love keeps Royals from succumbing to predictable melodrama, and Emma Forrest paints a vivid picture of 80s London through their madcap adventures that’s a joy to read. For me, the greatest love stories offer as many relatable moments as they do escapist fantasies. And in that respect, Royals is just right.

FIND ME

Stylist’s designer Megan Glynn backs Find Me by André Aciman (£14.99, Faber), out now.

Elio and Oliver. Those two names captured so many people’s hearts in Call Me By Your Name, the coming- of-age novel that became an Oscar-winning film in 2017, 10 years after the book’s initial release. Its author André Aciman changed the way we view relationships and made us feel personally connected to the characters. He also left us wanting more and now he’s finally given us the second chapter – Find Me. In true Aciman style, his beautiful writing is bursting with emotion as he takes us on a journey of multiple love stories all set in Italy where the original story began.

The plot is divided into four strands, each taking place several years apart – the now much older Elio and Oliver have independent lives and their summer of love is in the past. Yet, the iconic romance they shared reverberates through each narrative.

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Find Me opens with Sami, Elio’s father, as he meets a younger woman on a train and falls into an intense love affair. The relationship pushes him to explore past attachments, personal resentments and the fear of the future and also raises questions about his strength to let go and accept the present. This sets the tone for the chapters to come. At the core of the book love of all forms – from romantic to familial – takes centre stage and unites the characters and their relationships.

Royals, meanwhile, captures the simplicity of uncomplicated love between friends. Jasmine and Steven are relatable characters facing similarly heart-wrenching struggles, although from wildly different walks of life. Although full of charm and wit I felt it lacked the promise that was built up but never seemed to arrive.

Find Me isn’t flawless – I’ll admit I was disappointed it wasn’t purely about Elio and Oliver’s romance – but the layered stories allow it to be about so much more. It captures heartache and joy, loss and comfort, and creates a sense of reality where decisions have consequences and love isn’t simple. This, for me, makes it a clear winner.

The verdict: don’t make us choose

Both this week’s books focus on intoxicating relationships and their power to take over our lives. Through multilayered narratives, André Aciman’s Find Me revisits the love story between Elio and Oliver that captured so many hearts in Call Me By Your Name, while Emma Forrest’s Royals proves that a platonic relationship can be just as all-consuming as a romantic one.

It’s a dead heat – the choice is yours whether you want to visit the good life of the Italian Riviera or the glamour of 80s London. Enjoy the ride.

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