Overall Grade: 5++ ⭐️
I wanted to start this review with a football allusion given it is the backdrop and its own character in Ilsa Madden-Mills’s Beauty and the Baller, her newest sports romance. All night long, I kept trying to figure out the best way to describe the delight of her newest story. So this is it; this is what I came up with. Ilsa Madden-Mills is the Tom Brady of the football romance. Hands down. Like Tom Brady, most of her plays (her books) lead to SuperBowl-esque victories. In fact, I have yet to read a story on her booklist that leaves me unfulfilled or questioning her storytelling ability.
Instead, she makes us wait for her return and offers up a total touchdown with Beauty and the Baller. Let me elaborate. I jumped into her book, behind on my ARC (for an honest review, of course) reading this week. Time seemed to slip through my fingers. I had just finished a fairly angsty, dark-feeling romance, and I was ready for something light or lighter. With IMM, you’re never quite sure what you’ll get, so I began reading, shoring up my spirit against a potential angsty read or something that might take a bite out of my soul. And IMM has gifted her reader with a story that beautifully balances light and dark through the character arcs of her hero and heroine, Ronan and Nova. Like a tight end or wide receiver catching a carefully-placed pass from his quarterback, each chapter of Beauty and the Baller felt like a first down to a game-winning touchdown. What started with the expectation of a bit of drudgery (forgive me for saying that, Ilsa) turned into the most beautiful of spiral passes at each turn of the page of Ronan and Nova’s journey.
I won’t take the space of this review to discuss a summary of the book. I need you to read this story and argue that it isn’t one of the best reads of 2022. It’s definitely one of my top 5 thus far. Why?
For one, Ronan’s characterization is complicated. In one moment, his future is ripped away, and it leaves him, at first, numb and, later, afraid. Much of this story involves Ronan letting go of his fear to fall in love with Nova. Through him, we are gifted with the life motto: “win the heart, win everything.” And it takes much of the book for him to fully accept his own motto. We are also granted access to compelling chemistry between him and Nova. From the first chapter, it’s clear that these two are fated, and the beats of the story mimic the heartbeats between the two.
In Nova, we find the foundation and backbone of the story. It is impossible for Ronan to move beyond his past and accept love without the “glow” of Nova. IMM places most of the humor of her story in Nova’s mouth, and she challenges Ronan every step of the way in a manner that feels like a constant win. Even when the angst of the story is introduced, Nova remains a bright spot as she’s sitting in darkness. While Ronan gives us “win the heart, win everything,” through Nova, we receive the other important message: “Mama raised me to believe there’s a tiny light inside everyone, a wonderful place of possibilities for your life. It’s up to you to find your ‘glow’ and turn those possibilities into certainties. Make the impossible real. Reach for the stars, even if they burn, Nova.” This epitomizes Nova’s purpose for this story. From the choice of her name to her choices, Nova lives this life lesson. In doing so, she helps Ronan find it in himself. This truth becomes the ultimate driving force of their story together, and it’s “the win” for Beauty and the Baller, the emotional gravitas of the story.
Honestly, I could write many more words about Ilsa Madden Mills’s recent romance. The ancillary characters of the story add more depth to the humor and more gravity to its seriousness. When you leave Beauty and the Baller, you will pine for the stories of the other characters. I’m not sure if “Coach” (IMM) has a game plan for this (one can only hope), but given her ability to create win after win from her gamebook, there’s no telling what the future might bring. I’m fairly certain, like Tom Brady, it will entail writing stories that feel like game-winning touchdowns and a booklist full of MVPs.
In love and romance,