When you read a lot of romance, like Miss Bates does, it’s inevitable the narrative becomes stale. You lose patience and are more likely to curl your lip and DNF. There are romance writers, however, who renew your faith in the narrative’s ability to be fresh, yet familiar. The romance reader is this creature: she wants the familiar because it has meaning and the familiar to be sufficiently deviant to keep her interest and delight her. Liz Talley’s Sweet Talking Man was such a narrative for Miss B.: familiar and fresh, well-known conventions unfolding like beloved Christmas ornaments and their subversion unfolding like unexpected gifts. Thus transpires the story of B&B owner, PTA president, organizer-of-all-things, super-single-mom, forty-year-old divorcée heroine, Abigail Beauchamp Orgeron, and artist, teacher, vegan, ukulele-playing, thirty-four-year-old hero, Lief Lively, or as strait-laced Abigail calls him, “resident cuckoo bird.” The familiar is evident in the “opposites-attract” trope and romance narrative deviations in a 40-year-old heroine and the un-alpha-like interests of her December-to-his-May hero.
Talley’s Sweet Talking Man opens with Abigail marching her 12-year-old daughter, Birdie, to apologize to her art teacher, Leif, for spying on him as he swam. Abigail and Birdie encounter quite the scene when Leif’s rejected fiancée, Marcie, shows up berating-mode drunk, dressed in bridezilla sartorial splendor. Marcie is vehement in her condemnation, ” ‘And now you can go screw yourself.’ Except she didn’t say screw. She said the other word, making him glance over at Abigail, who had earmuffed Birdie.” Miss Bates thought the scene a hoot of good old-fashioned farce: shocked conservative PTA mom, mulish tween, and hemp-wearing ex-groom with shoulder-length blond locks and Nordic blue eyes, like a younger, less craggy Viggo Mortensen. Yum. Not long after, Cal, Abigail’s ex-husband shows up, five years after abandoning Abigail and Birdie at their Fourth-of-July celebration (to chase the dream of being a musician and young, ambitious girlfriend). This madcap start belies the seriousness of Talley’s themes, yet remains evidence of her ability to knit with multiple narrative threads. Characters in Talley’s Magnolia Bend, Louisiana, are on journeys: Birdie is trying to learn to be grown up; Abigail, and even the feckless Cal, are trying to let go of the past; and Leif, his reasons for coming to Magnolia Bend are the most intriguing. Leif’s mother, Calliope, was resident artiste at Laurel Woods (the plantation home that is now Abigail’s B&B business), when its then-owner, Simeon Harvey, died of a tumble down the stairs. Rumour had it that Calliope killed him. She didn’t; when she lay dying of cancer, she told Lief the father he’s never know is in Magnolia Bend. Leif is trying to understand who he is in order to understand what his future will look like. Talley pulls off all this serious “stuff” with a light touch, a balanced combination of humour and pathos, in a romance narrative that nods to the genre’s conventions and wryly turns them on their head.
Opposites-attract is a great romance trope, especially one where the writer chooses a humorous mode (as opposed to an “angsty” one). In Leif and Abigail’s creation, Talley has a winning formula in the stuck-up Miss Perfect and laid-back, incense-burning hippie-child, Leif. Their ages and his characterization are unusual (and most welcome) in romance. The opposites-attract trope is an interesting one because of the humour it provides initially and poignancy it contains in potentiality.
The exaggerated character traits of the opposites-attract trope are often masks to the characters’ frustrated, or thwarted selves. One of Talley’s accomplishments is in the way Leif and Abigail understand who the other is and who he/she may be. Leif’s let-live inspires Abigail to rethink how she lives her life, even if, initially, she dismisses him as a cuckoo-bird:
She held on to prickliness like a cape protecting her from being silly. She’d tucked away being lighthearted … the hot weirdo who strummed a ukulele at the local coffee shop and practiced tai chi in his yard wasn’t the kind of guy to let her guard down with. Too different from her … he paraded around in all states of undress. Once she’d seen him doing some kind of strange dance with swords on his front yard. He also played bongo drums on his front porch.
In Abigail’s no-nonsense judgement of Leif’s eccentricities are the seeds of what she lacks. The romance reader knows that Leif is the man to loosen her up, show her joy, and give her back her light. Abigail too works this way for Leif. While Leif likes to give the impression of being a love’em-and-leave’em bohemian tumbleweed, he is longing for rootedness:
He wasn’t the kind of guy who stuck … and stayed. Even though he wanted to be someone who belonged somewhere … and to someone.
Part of Abigail’s attraction for Leif is bound up with Magnolia Bend and her deep ties to family and place, her special ability in creating home and keeping people together: in her, he finds a home, a sense of belonging.
Though Leif is occupied with the search for his father, Abigail is far more compelling:
She seems layered to such a degree that no man could unwrap her. Steely one minute, achingly vulnerable the next. Abigail was the Mona Lisa, complicated and mysterious. Her beauty a masterpiece of shadow and illumination, a study in contrast. He found himself wanting to know her better, to break through the shell she’d built around herself.
Leif recognizes his qualities as complementary to Abigail because he is an artist and knows the value of chiaroscuro in paint, physical attraction, and compatibility. Later, when Abigail and Leif agree to a “friends with benefits” affair, though feeling and friendship insert themselves into their arrangement anyway, Abigail begins to admit her feelings for Leif; she voices them as complementarity as well, ” … he was the yang to her yin.” Their yangs and yins are mighty fine in the telling too, by the way. 😉
One of the essential themes of romance is transformation. One of the cleverest ways a romance writer can convey transformation is through allusion to the genre’s history. It is especially compelling and a sadly rare phenomenon (the supreme example of which is Seidel’s Again) of transforming character in the beloved’s eyes through allusion. Miss Bates loves this device and Talley has used it masterfully:
Abigail. She was the antithesis of overblown and easy. Her willowy frame harkened back to Jane Austen and buttoned-up dresses.
He’d gathered his hair into a low ponytail bound with leather and wore a hoodie that broadened his shoulders somehow. In the glow of the moon, he became a Nordic warrior.
“Why do you do that?” she asked. “What? Kiss your hand?” “Yeah, like you stepped out of the nineteenth century.” … “All of you is very elegant. Like a Degas. You remind me of one of his dancers.”
Some readers may find this contrived, or precious, but to Miss Bates, it points to a writer aware of her craft’s history. It adds wit and deepens character, especially when elements of farce have been part of the narrative. It’s a clever device because it adds layer to character, hearkens to tradition (suggesting this couple is on their love-journey as others before them) draws the reader’s reading experience into the narrative, and, for hero and heroine, distinguishes something in the other no one else is privy to, a specialness belonging solely to the beloved.
Another moment precious to romance writer and reader is that of recognizing what the beloved has come to mean:
… he’d thawed her, healed her, made her think about wanting more than what she’d settled for – a lonely bed, a hard heart, a facade of practicality and self-sufficiency.
… she made him feel like the man he could be someday. The sort of man who put down roots and grew toward the light of goodness, spreading limbs, sheltering all that was important to him. He could feel himself changing …
Miss Bates is fascinated by the manner in which the moment of recognition is, in turn, the moment of the hero and heroine’s self-understanding, possibility, and hope. This instant is, of course, followed by darkness, the moment of betrayal, loss, or estrangement about which Miss Bates has written. This moment involves Talley’s turning of romance conventions on their heads. She reverts to farce and makes it necessary for the heroine to grovel in place of the hero. (In effect, Miss B. can argue that Abigail’s betrayal happened in the past, in Cal’s abandonment; its effects are what she must heal from and what Leif is able to offer her.) Leif is a compelling reversal of romance conventions. His dissatisfaction with being a “friend with benefits” and hurt at being used sexually (of course the heroine is not so crass, but she is not forthcoming about her feelings, given her history) are a refreshing reconsideration of the tried-true-and-banal alpha hero. There is more to enjoy here: wonderful secondary characters, especially in the older people who advise and guide hero and heroine on their way to an HEA, a use of religion that is neither inspirational, nor contemptuous, but part of people’s everyday lives, and a clear-eyed portrait of a tween’s growing pains.
Miss Bates has found a new romance writer to follow and study in Liz Talley. Miss Austen says of Sweet Talking Man, “there is no charm like tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Liz Talley’s Sweet Talking Man is published by Harlequin (SuperRomance) and has been available since February 3rd, in paper and “e,” from your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.