Review: YOU DON’T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME by Sarra Manning

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me looked like a fairly predictable book to me. Even before I cracked open its spine, I knew it was going to be a typical romantic comedy, a prime example of “chick lit”, just like hundreds of books I’d already read, but was always willing to give a try nonetheless. Mostly, I picked it up because a person whose taste in books I trust implicitly told me it was a must-read. Needless to say, she was absolutely right.

Along the lines of the inimitable Bridget Jones, Ms. Manning’s protagonist, Neve Slater, is an intelligent young woman who works at the London Literary Archives, but she’s also a highly insecure person. Since her teenage years, Neve had been teased mercilessly about her weight. Over the last three years, she has taken great pains to lose that weight, but she’s still not happy. For Neve, happiness means a size 10 dress and a happily-ever-after with her intellectual soulmate, William, a friend from university who currently lives in L.A, and will be returning in a few months. Neve is not only physically preparing herself for their reunion but, as a 25-year old virgin, she desperately needs some experience with relationships and romance as well. Thus, after a super bumpy start, she winds up in a “pancake relationship” with her sister’s boss and charismatic womanizer, Max.

To cut a long story short, Max and Neve fall in love, have issues they end up resolving, and readers of the genre can easily predict what happens when Wiliam returns. And still, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a beautiful book I will read multiple times in the future. What makes it such a page-turner is the endearing way Ms. Manning has fleshed out Neve. From the start, her voice has an authenticity that I instantly related to. Even when it seemed like she was constantly cribbing about her size, her insecurities came across as real and her journey is one many women can identify with.

The manner in which Ms. Manning explored Neve’s world, showing how her issues affected not just every part of her life but also her thought process, and the change that came about in her as her relationship with Max progressed, was delightful yet plagued with the same issues a lot of feminist readers have with the genre of romance. Neve’s sense of happiness was constantly linked with the state of her relationship with Max. While their relationship is shown to progress in a very realistic manner, it was only when Neve was finally sure about her feelings with Max does she stop caring about how she looks. While that’s great for her, it still sends an incredibly problematic yet very common message. You don’t need a man to love you for who you are (as amazing as that is) to feel good about your body. You can be single and still live a happy life without constantly weighing and measuring yourself. That’s not a message this book succeeded in sending because it felt like if Max ever left the picture, Neve would just relapse.

Neve, when the story begins, is just another woman who was been body-shamed by society and its idolization of stick-figure beauty. Her insecurities persist despite having lost over 200 pounds because of the psychological trauma inflicted by her childhood bullies. The worst of the lot is now her sister-in-law, who lives downstairs and still terrorizes the hell out of Neve. An independent and well-educated woman, completely healthy for her size now,  Neve refused to see herself as “fit” or “healthy” or happy till she attained her goal of fitting into a particular dress size. And while this is a very common struggle, Ms. Manning paid scant attention to the body image issues of the other women in the book, like Neve’s younger sister Celia.

And despite the above-mentioned flaws, I really cannot stress how much I loved reading this book. I enjoyed the hilarity and realness of Neve’s narration and her blundering, romantic and utterly sweet relationship with Max. Of course, I love wicked, sexy, and surprisingly sensitive Max. I can’t remember his last name, but I fell hard for him. I feel like Ms. Manning could have told us a lot more about him, but whatever I read, I adored. Despite my problems with the trope, it was amazing to see him deal with Neve’s food issues and accept her for who she was, even at her worst moments. So while Neve’s self-image is linked to her love life, it is also glaringly evident that she has come a long way from the person she was, and like all of us, she has a long way to go.

Ms. Manning has written a compulsively relatable novel that kept me reading and laughing well into the night. Although the book tackled some very real issues, it was still a super-cute contemporary romance. I just wish there was an epilogue so I could read more. 🙂

Review: Luck Be A Lady (Rules for the Reckless #4) by Meredith Duran

Luck Be A Lady

For a good story, an antagonist is important as a protagonist. In Lady Be Good, Meredith Duran made her heroine overcome a greedy crime lord uncle and a snooty boss lady before she got her HEA. In this next book, however, the characters are properly humanized and by the time I finished reading Luck Be A Lady, I was thoroughly enchanted by Mr. Nicholas O’Shea and Ms. Catherine Eversleigh.

Ms. Duran understood that Nick and Catherine might not make the most sympathetic of protagonists so the book starts off with prologues that show us why all that Catherine seems to care about is her family’s auction house and why Nick had to turn to a life of crime. The events of Luck Be A Lady are set in the immediate aftermath of Lady Be Good. Lilah and Christian are off on their honeymoon and Catherine still needs to find a way to save Eversleigh’s from the hands of her crook of a brother. While her father groomed her to take over after his death, his will mandated that she be married before she gets access to her share.  To that end, she turns to Nicholas O’Shea, portrayed here as a benevolent revolutionary who only wants the best for his people. Oh, and he also runs the biggest (illegal) gambling den in all of London.

I was very excited to read this story because I had never read a historical romance where neither the hero nor the heroine was a member of the aristocracy. Catherine proposes a marriage of convenience to the only man she thought could protect her from her asshole brother and still give her a free rein in running her business. She never had any aspirations to be a woman of leisure and is shown as treating her beauty as an inconvenience. Nick accepts her proposal because he has some issues with a local government functionary and he had been fascinated with Catherine ever since his niece had gone to work for her.

To ensure that the marriage can’t be challenged by Catherine’s brother, Ms. Duran writes a very innovative, hilarious and yet sensual “consummation” scene that was a highlight of the book. However, as the story progresses there is still a lot of “will they or won’t they” kind of sexual tension that builds up as Nick and Catherine get to know each other better. Catherine cuts a very sympathetic figure and I really admired her single-minded focus on her business and how she refused to bow to society’s expectations and become just a wife. Nick’s reformation is also very convincing. His past transgressions were watered down to justify his actions, but that was expected.

The ending was very satisfying, poignant yet hilarious, and left me asking questions like “Does a grand gesture count if you have to go point it out?” Nick and Catherine come out as an unlikely match that brought out the best in each other. The fact that neither paid any mind to their class gap or what society would say about it reminded me of Chuck and Blair (one of my all-time favourite couples) and Nick’s arc about going legit was also very reminiscent of Roarke (favourite hero EVER). The story did leave a couple of threads dangling loose and it’s times like these that I wish Ms. Duran would set her sequels in a more interconnected universe. I would love to know more about what happens next in Nick and Catherine’s story.

Luck Be A Lady was a fun, unconventional historical romance that will stay with me because of its innovative handling of the usual tropes of a marriage of convenience and redemption. Nick and Catherine push each other into becoming more fearless and still desirous of the ties that came with marriage in the Victorian age. If that isn’t true love, I don’t know what is. I’m hoping Ms Duran succumbs to the trend and writes them a worthy epilogue!

Review: ‘Lady Be Good’ (Rules for the Reckless #3) by Meredith Duran

Lady Be Good

Even though I absolutely adored the last Meredith Duran book I read, my experience with her writing has been pretty erratic to date. Still, I had my finger crossed when I read Lady Be Good and, luckily, I wasn’t disappointed.

London, 1882. Lily Monroe is a precocious thief working for her uncle in return for her sister Fiona’s medical treatment. While she is used to a life of hard knocks and dangerous encounters, she is not prepared for her only sibling’s untimely death. Meanwhile, Major Christian “Kit” Stratton is being tortured by a Russian madman somewhere in the Hindu Kush mountains. The Russian, Bolkhov, blames Kit and his men for the deaths of his family (read: captors he raped and impregnated) and vows to exact revenge by killing everyone Kit holds dear.

The story then takes a four-year leap. Back in London, Christian, now a viscount after the sudden deaths of his father (riding accident) and elder brother (house fire), is a celebrated war hero. Suspecting foul play, he is determined to save the lives of his mother and sister from a megalomaniacal Bolkhov. Christian meets Lily, now calling herself Lilah, at Everleigh’s Auction House. Now a ‘hostess’, Lily gets caught by him as she attempts to steal Peter Everleigh’s correspondence as a last favor for her Godfather/Robin Hood uncle. Instead of ratting her out, Christian decides to use Lily to get to Catherine Everleigh, the beauty co-owner of Everleigh’s who has had contact with a mysterious Russian antique dealer that Christian suspects to be Bolkhov. He blackmails Lily into spying on Catherine, telling her that he just wants help in wooing the icy proprietress. In return, he insists that he will return Peter Everleigh’s letters to Lily when her job is done.

Lily has been trying to fulfill her sister’s dream of living a respectable life. She was living on the straight and narrow when her uncle threatened to expose her sordid past to her new employers if she didn’t steal the letters. Now, she is being blackmailed by two men, and in order to pay the first, she has no choice but to obey the second.

The story then shifts to a country estate that Christian has inherited from a distant cousin. After some expert maneuvering, he has made sure that Catherine, and not her brother, will accompany him to the property to assess the valuables in the house for an auction. Lily is forced to be her assistant-cum-chaperone. Though she hates the fact that she is being blackmailed by Christian, the new job is an opportunity for Lily to learn from Catherine and maybe move up in the world. Unfortunately, Catherine Everleigh is too sharp and exacting in life, making both of Lily’s jobs difficult.

In the meanwhile, Christian and Lily are attracted to each other despite the many reasons they shouldn’t be. For all their differences, they have both lost an older sibling and in some ways are living the lives those people were meant to lead. Christian has no desire to be a peer of the realm; Fiona dreamed of becoming an Everleigh hostess while Lily trained as a typist.

There is nothing stellar about Lady Be Good. As with most Meredith Duran books, its strength lies in its execution, through strong prose and extensive characterization, leading Christian and Lily to emerge as more than stereotypes. Sure, he’s ruthless, but Christian is also deeply conflicted. He feels like he’s playing a role–‘the hero of Bekhole’ to an adoring British public–but it’s not really him. He was once the carefree spare heir, then the disciplined military man, but neither of these labels fit him anymore. As for Lily, she has tried really tried to shake off her past, but not without regret. Her cunning uncle and her other friends and family from the London underworld make her feel ashamed of wanting to be something different, someone more respectable. And she can never quite the lose the fear that one day the truth about her past will come out and her carefully constructed new world will come crashing down.

Lily and Christian’s relationship develops slowly and gradually–from intrigue and attraction to respect and liking and then to love. There were times when I felt that the characters could have overcome the mental constraints imposed on them by their antiquated time period. Also, Bolkhov was woefully underdeveloped as a villain. He maintains a menacing background presence for most of the book, but the actual confrontation with him was rather anti-climactic.

Lastly, Lady Be Good left me very eager to start its sequel Luck Be A Lady, which pairs Lily’s uncle Nick O’Shea with Miss Catherine Everleigh. It will be interesting to see how Ms. Duran manages to redeem him. (Catherine’s a piece of work, too, but she softens considerably in this book.) Another fun read by Meredith Duran.

Review: “The Innocents” by Francesca Segal

The Innocents

The novels of Edith Wharton vacillate between snide gossip and heart-wrenching insight, between the affirmation of a social hierarchy and a lament that this very hierarchy crushes the spirits of those that adhere to it. A natural consequence of this is the wide range in the contemporary heirs of her oeuvre. On one end, we have the beginning of Gossip Girl, based on Wharton’s Age of Innocenceportraying an insular and elitist world. On the other end, we have Francesca Segal’s (daughter of Erich Segal) critical success The Innocents, also based on the same book, draws attention to Wharton as a chronicler of individual yearning versus group convention. The book has already been optioned for a miniseries and is being called the “Jewish Downton Abbey“, emphasis on the Jewish. Segal has incredibly transposed Wharton’s, a notorious anti-Semite, tale of stiff WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and their subjugated women to a world of cosmopolitan Jews who have premarital sex and go on teen coed tours to Israel. The Innocents succeeds to an extent that will make you proud–but in doing so, results in a very different end, one that provides a tender take on family, loss and growing into adulthood. What we get is surprisingly far removed from Wharton’s sweeping and unflinching dissection of an earlier era.

Courtesy: The CW

The Innocents’ very first tableau exemplifies how effective her concept is. Wharton’s iconic opening scene has the protagonist Newland Archer training his opera glasses on Countess Olenska, the women who will upend his life–sitting in the family box beside his future wife, May Welland.  Segal deftly shifts this moment from the concert hall to the synagogue gallery during Yom Kippur. Our innocent hero, Adam, looks up from his prayers to scan the women’s balcony and gaze with “certainty” upon his fiancée, Rachel; beyond Rachel, he sees Ellie, Rachel’s American cousin, the family disgrace, “exposing skin from clavicle to navel“. He is repelled yet intrigued; I was simply the latter. The certainty had ended for Adam; for the reader, the story has just begun.

More than setting up the novel’s central conflict, this opening scene acknowledged the synagogue as a social as well as spiritual place, affording the chance to show off one’s engagement ring, judge one’s neighbours even while atoning, and introduce one’s unsavoury relatives into polite company. We can see from the scrutiny given to Ellie, the notorious interloper with the rather pedestrian name, that this set of London Jews is cloistered in their own ways: doctrinaire on matters of propriety more than piety, well-off but not as fully worldly as they could be.

Segal sets her story’s confrontations and reconciliations at holidays, parties and other life events in the North London community she knows. She recasts the smug, sheltered May Welland and her prominent clan as Rachel Gilbert and her intrusive, loving, and ultimately steely family. That they, like many of the neighbours, are descendants of Holocaust survivors–Rachel’s grandmother Ziva lived through Bergen-Belsen–gives context to the entire community’s unyielding traditionalism. To Rachel’s father, Lawrence, who has taken the fatherless Adam in as his own son, “there was only ever one thing that was important, and that thing was family“.

The claustrophobia that tempers the younger generation’s freedom sets up Adam to be torn up between worship for his fiancée and infatuation with her cousin. Not unlike the men of Old New York, men of Adam’s ilk sow their wild oats in university but then come home to wed their high-school classmates, or, in his case, Israel summer sweethearts, and take their rightful place in the offices where their fathers worked, synagogue committees their uncles run, and neighbourhoods where they themselves grew up.  Obviously, Adam is indeed tempted to reject such comforting but boxed-in parameters, and yes, he finds kinship with Ellie. They are both half-orphans and her history of dating dubious men and semi-pornographic modelling and acting,  rendering her the opposite of a nice Jewish girl, certainly gives her the requisite transgressive attraction.

It’s hard not to find the success of Segal’s choice subversively delicious because, well, Wharton loathed Jews–she was an anti-Semite along with many of her literary peers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. In this sense, Segal’s world is an inversion of her predecessor’s: while Wharton’s stodgy Americans looked down at Jews and European characters, the European Jewish characters of The Innocents look askance at the goyim (non-Jews or non-observant Jews), and even their Americanised cousins.

Wharton’s anti-Semitism is a facet of what’s both maddening and marvellous about her: just like her creation Newland Archer, she is through and through a product of the universe she critiques. But for a Wharton fan like myself, that complexity is an added fascination. Newland, in his weakness, implicates, but also humanizes his author and all of us when we remain bystanders, aware of the evils of our way of life but succumbing to its comforts.

Segal’s world is less evil than claustrophobic or occasionally petty. Thus, even as her social repositioning of her novel and her dialogue-rich and fluid prose lives up to her source material, important distinctions remain. Some relate to gender politics. Both of Wharton’s female characters remain incredibly strong in the face of limited roles: May as the icy torch bearer for the “way things are“; Countess Olenska as an exile who forged her own moral code after suffering hardship. Neither of Segal’s heroines quite lives up. Rachel’s naive, unquestioning attitude isn’t unrealistic–wilfully shallow people exist in droves–but it verges on too irritating to be redeemable. Her retrograde focus on domesticity, prioritizing cooking Adam dinner above all else, grates in particular. I mean, no matter how conservative her upbringing, she would have been exposed to some form of faux-feminism in this day and age. Meanwhile, her cousin and rival, Ellie, is a child of violence–her mother died in a bombing in Israel–and this is meant to account for her alienation, her obliviousness to mores. But unlike the Countess Olenska, whose primary social sin is divorcing a husband rumoured to have mistreated her, Ellie has taken no strong steps to ward off her own exploitation besides coming to London. Her impassivity is her grand statement about the world.  She is at her most finely drawn when she finally lashes out in anger. Would that Ellie, in addition to being a wounded sexpot, had been a staunch atheist, a Palestinian solidarity activist, a deliberate eccentric–something. Both Segal and Adam’s compassion for her reads as genuine, but she never truly holds up as a convincing escape route for him. The maze of connections binding Adam to his world seems too thick for Ellie’s long legs to lead him out.

Yes, it can’t be helped: Segal’s ultimate affection for her characters’ milieu just doesn’t burn up the page the same way as Wharton’s tortured ambivalence–she was writing from France, decades later–does. That ambivalence is so memorably encapsulated by The Age of Innocence‘s final moments, as Newland Archer sits in the courtyard beneath the apartment of his former great love, decades after their romance, unwilling to go upstairs and face the life he has chosen to miss, to let go of his season of memories. Needless to say, there is no such haunting coda in The Innocents, and there doesn’t need to be.

Although much of its elements are the same as its predecessor, the novel at its heart tells the story of a community forged not by the exclusion of others but by having once been excluded. So who needs to be haunted by the road not taken, when the road one is on involves the whole clan, in all its close-knit complexity?