This summer’s hottest read is Akwaeke Emezi’s first romance novel

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Akwaeke Emezi is known for their literary flexibility, having already displayed a mastery of fiction, poetry and memoir, but You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty is a shock to the system in more ways than one. The differences between the prize-winning writer’s first romance novel and their previous work go beyond genre boundaries and readers’ expectations. 

Like Emezi’s debut, Freshwater (2018), and their acclaimed, bestselling novel The Death of Vivek Oji (2020), You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty is a bold work of art. But while those earlier books possess what Emezi calls “a quality of the other” or “a separateness,” the author’s first romance reflects a different voice—one that is truer to their own story of love and heartbreak when they were a 20-something in New York City.

The novel follows Nigerian American artist Feyi Adekola, who’s restarting her life in Brooklyn five years after the death of her husband. As Feyi becomes romantically entangled with a man named Nasir and then with his father, a celebrity chef named Alim, she discovers the kind of healing she needs. 

Read our starred review of ‘You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty.’

The novel takes Emezi in multiple new directions. It’s light, optimistic and fun while maintaining a significant throughline of lyricism and drama. However, there’s a certain vulnerability and rebellion whenever an author flips the script on their readership. When a voice emerges that’s different from what came before, there’s a real potential for blowback. 

“I don’t know if all readers are going to enjoy it suddenly being so, you know, contemporary and vulgar,” Emezi says, speaking by video call. “I think that will challenge certain readers, because I do think there’s a kind of reader—and to be very honest, I think of a white liberal reader when I think of this reader—who’s coming to the work looking for that otherness, you know, looking for something that’s a little foreign and well out of reach.” 

That’s an unsettling but not entirely unfamiliar sentiment. For some readers, stories of African spirituality set within African settings are more palatable than portraits of young queer Black women disregarding the boundaries of American propriety. “I’ve seen a couple of early Goodreads reviews, and some people really do not like this book,” Emezi says.

“It’s not a literary novel pretending to be a romance. Like, no, I wrote it for the genre.”

A strong audience response is a hallmark of our modern interactive literary landscape, which could be intimidating to an author and consummate artist like Emezi. But despite any pre-publication speculation about the novel’s reception, the author’s enthusiasm and fighting spirit are unmistakable. Emezi is clearly up for the challenge, with an attitude that’s more “bring it on” than nervous. 

As Emezi ruminates on the topography of the literary market, they reveal a sophisticated understanding of both their career and how genre fiction is positioned in relation to books that are considered “literary.” “I actually was a speculative fiction writer,” the author says, “but when I decided to write professionally, I had a game plan, and the game plan was to do literary fiction first, because it seemed easier to start in literary fiction and then move to other genres, rather than go in the other direction.”

Both in its own right and in the context of Emezi’s literary game plan, You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty (whose title comes from a lyric in the song “Hunger” by Florence + the Machine) is an exciting achievement that represents a particular kind of artistic freedom. And after Emezi’s most recent publishing successes, including their Stonewall Award-winning memoir, Dear Senthuran, the timing seems right for them to take this leap. Plus, many readers will relate to the author’s inclination toward lightness. Emezi has long been a romance fan, but the past few years have rendered romance’s appeal more immediate and keenly felt.

“The world is such a heavy place—always has been, but it seems to be getting heavier,” Emezi says. “I wanted to both read and write something more joyful, something that had a happy ending. And that’s one of the things I love about romance, that it gives you a soft place to land.”

You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty

Make no mistake, Emezi is very clear on what kind of book they’ve written: “It’s not a literary novel pretending to be a romance. Like, no, I wrote it for the genre.” They display a clear knowledge of romance conventions, readership and fan base, and they selected a publisher with a track record of embracing the popular genre. “Part of the reason why I published with Atria is because I’m not doing literary fiction. I’m doing commercial fiction,” Emezi says. “I wanted to be very firmly rooted in the genre.” This intention permeates the novel, which readers of other hardcover contemporary romances, such as Tia Williams’ bestselling Seven Days in June, will gravitate toward immediately. 

Like Williams’ novel, Emezi’s book has a sexy, glam 2000s Brooklyn vibe, and its Caribbean scenes are equally alive. Emezi has lived in both New York City and Trinidad, and while they never insert a representation of themself into their fictional narratives, this novel is clearly influenced by real life. Feyi and her best friend and roommate, Joy, are radiant. Messy, single and free, they have known loss and are trying to make the most of their time on Earth. 

“I spent my entire 20s in Brooklyn,” says the author, who is 34. “This is what we were doing. . . . We were being hoes, and we were partying, and we were having a great time.” From page one, the novel throws off the cultural constraints of a judgmental white or male gaze. Feyi and Joy consciously reject the unwritten rules of modern respectability that Black women are often expected to follow.

“I don’t really get my thrills that way anymore,” Emezi says. “Now I’m like, ‘Oh, my garden.’ But back then, I would have been worse than both Feyi and Joy.”

This full-hearted and playful embrace of Black joy and romance also manifests in Feyi’s impeccable older love interest, Alim. His portrayal is one of fluid beauty and sensitivity that happily flirts with wish fulfillment. In fact, conjuring a dream man on the page complicated Emezi’s personal life during the novel’s incubation: “When I first started writing him as a character, I was dating this guy in New York. And the guy was jealous of Alim because he was like, ‘I feel like you’re writing your perfect man.’ Of course I am. I absolutely am.” 

For all its lightness, the novel does pose its share of challenges, and while Emezi fiercely respects the traditions of romance, they’ve also made some provocative choices. Like many modern romances (especially ones by independently published authors), Emezi’s novel departs from the old-school concept of “there can only be one” love interest, a requirement that seems increasingly ill-suited to 21st-century relationships. Sometimes in romance novels, there is only one true love, and if you lose that one but then find someone else, there must have been something wrong with the previous experience. But both Feyi and Alim experience deep, abiding love before they meet each other, and the connection between them never calls those prior commitments into question. Feyi also sees other men before she meets her ultimate love interest, and there’s no shade in the way those sexual experiences are presented.

“I wanted to both read and write something more joyful, something that had a happy ending.”

Through the expertly crafted narrative and the way Feyi and Alim bond on so many levels, including sexually and spiritually, Emezi’s novel demonstrates that you don’t have to diminish the past in order to love someone thoroughly in the present. This is a driving theme of the novel: seizing a second chance after a previous true love. It’s a motif close to Emezi’s heart. 

“I got married really, really young, when I was in my early 20s. And when that marriage ended, I was like, this is it. I’m never falling in love again. And it’s odd because when you lose your first love, on one hand, it feels impossible that it can ever happen again,” they say. “On the other hand . . . once you move past the limitations of ‘it can only happen once,’ then you can use that first time to be like, well, if it happened before, it means that it’s possible for it to happen again.”

In the end, Emezi believes, it comes down to a choice: “You can either choose despair or hope, and I wanted to show both Feyi and Alim choosing hope and working their way toward it.” In this, they have certainly succeeded. The idea that love is conscious and regenerative comes through beautifully in their characters’ growth and in the relationship’s progression. The result is a gorgeous affirmation: Second chances are real, even for characters with a few scars and miles on them.

Photo of Akwaeke Emezi by Vo.

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