In Defense of the Fast Burn Romance

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Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

You know the social media trend where an author or fan drops some emoji-filled bullet points about tropes or other elements in forthcoming books? I have complex feelings about those. On the one hand, I don’t love this reductive approach to books. Books are more than just collections of tropes, and plenty of authors can make me love a trope I usually avoid.

Moreover, just because a trope is present doesn’t mean I will automatically enjoy the book. But at least when I see a bullet point claiming a book is a slow burn, I know what I’m getting into. Because when it comes to reading romance, I share the sentiment made famous by the esteemed organizational queen Marie Kondo:

And a fast burn romance can really bring the mess. The book that made me so thankful that not everyone is writing slow burns this year is A Lot Like Adiós. This is the second book in Alexis Daria’s excellent Primas of Power series. In this book, Michelle Amato takes a job heading the marketing campaign for the new New York location of a hot Los Angeles gym. That gym’s co-owner happens to be Gabriel Aguilar, Michelle’s high school best friend. The two already have so much history and so much entangled family. So a fake dating scheme makes things even more complicated.

Image of A Lot Like Adiós

To add to the mess, things get physical between Michelle and Gabe rather quickly. What I loved about this book is its exploration of two people who have a lot of physical chemistry while not having all the emotions figured out yet. Being out of step in that way amplifies the messiness. An added bonus in this book is the fanfic angle. If you read You Had Me at Hola and enjoyed the telenovela interstitials, you’re likely to enjoy the fanfic about a fictional TV show interlaced through this story as well.

What keeps us turning the pages?

There are words that people throw out when talking about what sustains a romance, namely tension and conflict. Sometimes I think people conflate delaying sex and intimacy with establishing tension. I’ve read some slow burn romances that have little to no tension because the characters’ plots send them in all directions except toward each other. I hesitate to call those kinds of books slow burns because nothing ever ignited in the first place!

A Lot Like Adiós shows that physical intimacy does not necessarily resolve conflict. Giving sexual tension an outlet doesn’t mean there aren’t other kinds of tension in the relationship. I’m reading this book with my heart in my throat, not wondering when they’re finally going to bang, but wondering how they’re going to make sense of the mess they’ve made. And obviously all reading preferences are personal, but the latter is often more appealing to me.

Let’s Talk About Feelings

I think it’s also worth drawing a distinction between a romance dinged for being “instalove” and a fast burn romance. I share the sentiments of fellow Rioter Danika Ellis when I say that I too can enjoy a true whirlwind of a romance. But let’s also be clear that acting on sexual feelings isn’t the same as having an instantaneous romantic connection. These things can be in or out of step. Let’s make a little axis, shall we?

A graph with one axis for sexual intimacy going from slow to fast, crossing another axis of feelings going slow to fast. In the fast sexual intimacy, fast feelings quadrant is a heart with an arrow through it that says, "I love mess!"
I love to express myself with a graph.

I have undoubtedly adored romances from all four quadrants. Also, I want to be very clear that romance doesn’t require sexual intimacy, so this axis doesn’t apply to the entire genre. Nonetheless, let’s celebrate that messy upper right. I do believe A Lot Like Adiós belongs in that quadrant. Not only did Michelle and Gabe get physical fairly early in the book, there were already plenty of feelings from the start because of their long history. There’s nothing quite as soothing as seeing such a snarl untangle over the course of a book.

Trope to Look Out For: One Night Stand

If you are looking for a fast burn romance, it can be tricky to know where to spot them. People don’t typically put “fast burn” in a bullet point tweet the way they do for “slow burn.” Still, some tropes are more promising than others. One tried and true trope is one-night-to-forever, where a one night stand defies its ostensible duration. If the Boot Fits, Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Cinderella reimagining, subs in a one night stand for Cinderella’s night at the ball, which is a truly delightful spin on the fairytale. While that initial enchanting evening isn’t on the page, the story of a Hollywood personal assistant accidentally absconding with the swag bag holding her one night stand’s Oscar is pure delight. 

her night with the duke book cover

In Diana Quincy’s Her Night With the Duke, Lady Delilah Chambers has a little tryst while stranded at an inn, only to learn her inamorata is the duke about to wed her stepdaughter. That book lets readers in on the chemistry right from the start. And if that premise isn’t messy, I don’t know what is. 2022 is promising for fans of this trope, because Meryl Wilsner’s Mistakes Were Made is forthcoming. That book follows a college senior who has a one night stand with a woman who turns out to be her friend’s mom. I am on tenterhooks for that one!

Trope to Look Out for: Sex Pact

go deep by rilzy adams book cover

Another great trope is the sex pact. This trope features characters who agree to have sex for some very practical reason. Rilzy Adams’s Go Deep features Navaya Howard, who needs some real-life inspiration for the erotic literature she writes. She enlists her friend Xander for the job, and whoops, it’s also love. Jodie Slaughter’s Bet On It is another 2022 book I’m eager to read. It involves a “BINGO-based sex pact,” so I’m hoping it delivers a fast burn too.

And of course, if you really want to go for it with a fast burn romance, there’s always aphrodisiac plot lines. I admit I’m a little shy about those because I like good portrayals of consent in my romance novels. But I did heartily enjoy Sophie Jordan’s The Virgin and the Rogue, in which Charlotte Langley’s sister accidentally gives her an aphrodisiac — it was supposed to be a cure for menstrual cramps! Kingston is the target of Charlotte’s amorous affliction, but he’s not happy with only one encounter. It’s a madcap historical romp if you’re in the mood for such a confection.

Tell Me I’m Not Alone

Sometimes I worry that the slow burn is considered the hallmark of “skillfully written” romance. Am I meant to be satisfied by longing glances for hundreds of pages? Sometimes I am, sure, but at the end of the day, what I want to read in romance is desire. Characters can certainly wallow in desire without ever touching one another. To me, the pervasiveness of that desire, regardless of whether or when it’s consummated, is the mark of skillful writing.

If you too love a fast burn romance, throw me some recommendations, kindred spirit. Like the narrator of Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice,” I hold with those who favor fire.