Mica De Leon’s Love on the Second Read is a delectable offering.

You plunge straight into the world of publishing. In one way, this is a story about storytelling. As far as I’m concerned, this book is a superb example of metafiction. At a self-referential moment in the narrative, Leon seems to wink at the reader: “This day in March would fall on a fine spring day if this were an American romance.”

Literally romance

However, this is not a typical romance blooming like flowers on a spring day. It is a peculiar entanglement between two editors, Emma Morales and Kip Alegre, collaborating on a book that may decide the fate of their beleaguered publishing house in the Philippines. Emma is an authority on romance novels, while Kip is steeped in science fiction and fantasy. The pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on the book-making business. For the employees of Maya Press, this is the winter of despair. The manuscript that promises to be their salvation is a mix of romance and SFF (sci-fi and fantasy). The protagonists fight over edits and give each other monikers like “Hobbit” and “Buttercup”. Their witty repartee is the highlight of the book. I paused and Googled literary trivia as they flew back and forth between the two of them. Despite the interruptions, the novel kept my attention from straying.

Emma and Kip discuss classic literary tropes that have been given a new lease of life through experimentation. Popular works of fiction, such as The Lord of the Rings, figure in vibrant conversations. When the editors find themselves in a romantic bubble, meta (fiction) turns metaphorical:

She impulsively pulled at the hem of his clothes, looking up at his face, his body towering over her, shelves filled to the brim with books, a thousand stories flanking them like sentinels.

The narrative is animated by the bickering and banter of the two editors, whose lives seem to be engulfed by work. They edit, proofread and shape manuscripts; hand-hold and harangue authors; and perform myriads of other tasks. Emma and Kip slave away till late at night to meet their daunting deadlines. Surprisingly, this endless slog is their dream job. As someone whose entire life revolves around books, Emma unsurprisingly gravitated towards publishing, little knowing that the work would be so gruelling and underpaying. Kip has inherited his passion for books from his parents, who named him after Rudyard Kipling. Kip Alegre is a shortened version of Rudyard Kipling Alegre. These charming details make the story even livelier.

In this world of book nerds, literary tropes are found aplenty in real life. When Emma invites Kip to stay over at her nearby condo after a very long day at work, she suddenly realises that there is just one bed at her place. In a typical romance, a man and a woman often find that they have just one bed to sleep in, creating a kind of proximity that stirs desire. Emma is thoroughly amused by the “twisted sense of humour” of “the romance gods”. When Kip gets the drift, he laughs as well. On more than one occasion, the two of them find themselves “standing in the middle of a nerdy joke”.

Though I wanted to go along with the spirit of the story, I couldn’t help noticing the insane workload at the publishing house, leaving the protagonists too tired for anything to do in bed together. But then, we live in a world where work-life balance is hard to achieve, no matter how good we are at our jobs. Like Boxer in Animal Farm, we resolve to work harder, or smarter, and yet we’re always perilously close to burning out.

The temperature eventually rises as the romance gains momentum. After all, you can’t have a romance novel without ardent love-making. What sets this novel apart is its ability to turn intense moments playful by slipping in nerdy tidbits, eliciting laughter without trivialising the romance at the heart of the story:

He moved further down till he was face to face with her purple, not-funny-anymore Cheshire-Cat-patterned underwear, staring at the space between her legs, a smile coming to his lips. “Okay. You win,” he said with a laugh. 

She propped herself up on her elbows. “What?”

“You’re the queen of book references. I won’t challenge you again …,” he said, grinning at her.

Loving and creating books

Love and literature go hand in hand in the novel. As Emma and Kip wrestle with and over the genre-bending book, you notice how the author too is pushing the narrative. This is a novel that lays bare the laborious process of producing a work of fiction. Though the narrative calls attention to its own artificiality, it doesn’t break the spell cast by the intriguing romance. Love on the Second Read reveals the crackling intensity of literary chemistry. Within it lies the desire that life could imitate a story:

Emma wished that life was as cleanly structured as a story. 

Promise-progress-payoff. The three-act structure. The hero’s journey. The romance arc. 

Her life would have been so much easier if she could categorize events in her life as necessary beats in a story. Because then she could predict how the story ended.  

Though Leon fulfils the promise held out by the book, she ends the story with something more profound than a happily-ever-after. I will leave that for you to read and discover. The book is a literary adventure. It is, in fact, a love letter to literature. It ignites in you a desire to read voraciously. And it shatters the myth that nerdy cannot be sexy.

Love on the Second, Mica De Leon, Penguin South East Asia.