Plot Twist: Your Big Secret Crush Is Also Your Housemate

WILD THINGS, by Laura Kay

There are two things a writer of romantic comedy can tell you about the state of the genre in 2023. First, every reader, editor and publisher desperately wants the next snappy, swoon-inducing, book-club-busting rom-com. Second, the world seems to have forgotten how difficult a great contemporary romantic comedy is to craft.

A quality rom-com is a dance: a delicate balancing act of character and pacing, wish fulfillment and relatability, tension and levity, comedic timing and sentimentality. It can be noisy and shiny or cozy and intimate, but it must always be romantic. And — here’s the crucial part many overlook — it must be genuinely funny.

Contemporary rom-coms that check all of these boxes seem vanishingly rare, but by Page 7 of “Wild Things,” a new novel by the English author and journalist Laura Kay, I knew I had found one. As our protagonist, an anxious and directionless desk worker named Eleanor, describes her dissatisfaction with her mundane life to her friends, one of them argues that her propensity to research things like memory foam pillows is endearing — that they like her as she is, “healthy necked and sensible.”

“It is deeply humbling to be described by someone you fancy as ‘healthy necked,’” Eleanor thinks to herself. This was the moment I had to mark the page, sit back and smile. I had come across a piece of writing that gave me that elusive rom-com thrill.

“Wild Things,” Kay’s third book but the first to be published in the United States, follows Eleanor as she challenges herself to a year of doing “wild things,” the wildest of which turns out to be leaving London and buying a fixer-upper in a small country village with three friends. Joining her are Jamie, a flamboyant city-dweller who dedicates himself to rescuing chickens; Will, the token straight man mending a broken heart; and Ray, a confident young journalist, Eleanor’s best friend and longtime gay crush. Together, they begin to adjust to their quaint new community and work to restore the cottage in time for a huge housewarming party.

The story that unfolds is buoyant, charming, delectably wistful and quietly earnest — not to mention, British enough to beguile even the subset of Americans who cuddle up to “The Great British Bake Off” on a Sunday afternoon. Eleanor blunders through love and sex with the exasperated, self-effacing vulnerability of Hugh Grant in “Notting Hill.” The friends’ slug-filled cottage is like living in the England half of “The Holiday,” if Jude Law were a butch lesbian devoted to refinishing the floorboards.

Kay writes with a breezy but grounded crispness, like a bike ride through the country. She makes precise choices in pert, clever sentences. Jokes, quips and asides land with neat efficiency, always off-the-cuff, never self-satisfied or self-conscious. Between Eleanor and Ray, touches linger for the perfect length of time and still never long enough; glances and almost-confessions shimmer in the breathless in-between of uncertainty.

Most of all, Eleanor finds her way. Her wild year pushes her through anxiety, self-doubt, career burnout and her mistaken belief that her crush is unrequited.

A great rom-com makes us root for our protagonist, and Kay’s straightforward storytelling puts us right in bed with Eleanor, eating jam from the jar, worrying we’ve wasted our best years. We know this moment, the Saturn return, the scrabbling existential crisis you have in your late 20s. Eleanor’s laughs are ours. Her overgrown garden is our untamable housework. Her untidy nights of cake with friends on the floor of an old house are our warmest and messiest memories. Her beloved friends and eccentric village neighbors are the faces of an ordinary day in the most wholesome, funniest version of our lives.

“Wild Things” is an excellent romantic comedy. It is not a sunny sky, but a sunbeam: energy focused into a patch of hopeful light.

Casey McQuiston is an author of queer romantic comedies.

WILD THINGS | By Laura Kay | 311 pp. | Vintage | Paperback, $17

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