Finding a new auto-read author is great comfort because Miss Bates knows that even if this romance isn’t her best romance, it’ll still be pretty darn good. The reader’s stakes are low; the central couple’s, high. Which is how Miss Bates likes’em. The first romance she read in Talley’s Magnolia Bend, Louisiana, series, Sweet Talking Man, made its way into her heart, head, and running list of 2015 Best Of (to come soon; how time has flown, dear readers). A favourite author’s romance isn’t read because the romance will be good, that’s a given, but to, once again, re-experience the author’s sensibility and world view. In Liz Talley we have an earthier, funnier Janice Kay Johnson. JKJ is one of MissB’s faves, a little more gravitas, a little grimmer, but equally perceptive about the psychology of families, small towns, nuanced child characters (no adorable plot moppets to be found) and love’s challenging transformations. Moreover, Talley does something that Miss Bates looks and hopes for in contemporary romance (maybe there’s a touch in JKJ too, on occasion): a nod to the role religion plays in ordinary people’s daily lives, without the inspirational proselytizing and priggish attitudes to sex and the occasional beer. Bring it on and bring more of it, please! Liz Talley’s third Magnolia Bend romance novel and without the blandness that comes with sweet, or “heartwarming” romance. Sweet Southern Nights, is the friends-to-lovers tale of two firefighting best friends: Eva Monroe, the former new girl in town who’s found a place to belong, and hometown bad boy, Jake Beauchamp, “hardworking firefighter, hard-playing Romeo.”
Sweet Southern Nights is not romance of the convoluted plot. In that sense, Talley shows her perceptive understanding of what category romance does best: single-minded focus on characters’ growth and their “vegetable love”. Eva and Jake have been friends for years, since the day Eva walked into the fire station to take her place on Jake’s shift. They’ve seen each other through fire, myriad boyfriends and girlfriends, and a footloose youthful life that made only their friendship a steadying anchor. Talley soon adds the emotional complications that make the genre so deliciously enjoyable. Eva’s carried a torch for Jake from the day she saw him. But she knew him for a partner and town Lothario; she stayed away and preserved the friendship … except lately her attraction to and love for blue-eyed Jake is peeking over her well-established emotional and physical walls. Jake too noticed how pretty and curvaceously yummy Eva Monroe was the moment she walked into his watch. But, darn it, she’s his partner and she’s really nice, funny, and smart. He values her too much as his friend to jeopardize their camaraderie with love-’em-and-leave’em sex.
The first third or so of Sweet Southern Nights didn’t grab Miss Bates as Sweet Talking Man did, with its vegan, Viking-hippie hero and strait-laced single-mom heroine. The former’s narrative meandered, giving us glimpses of Eva and Jake’s friendship, Eva’s love-comes-knocking torch for Jake, and Jake’s ribald humour. Eva’s the more mature of the two, aware of her feelings, her desires, and the costs of admitting her loving Jake. Jake, on the other hand, remains charmingly clueless, aware that he’s having no-no thoughts and urges for his BF, but damn if he can understand why. Feelings-r-not-us is Jakey’s middle name. But, there be reasons. And once Talley develops the “reasons,” the narrative gets a whole lot more interesting thanks to two elements. First, there’s Charlie, Eva’s six-year-old stepbrother who needs a care-giver when his mother enters rehab. Eva’s pain comes of a broken family: a dad who cared more for firefighting than being there for his daughter and a mom who cared more for her boyfriends than Eva. But Eva’s such an admirable character: forging a sense of family and community as best she knows how. Her sense of responsibility and sheer good-hearted-ness make her Charlie’s guardian. Her care and love for Charlie, after a life of footless and fancy-free, is a great addition to the story’s initial lack of tension. Cue Jake too because Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky hides a world of regret, guilt, and feelings of unworthiness thanks to an accident in his youth. One of the romance’s pleasures is our witness to Jake’s realization that his sleeping-around ways compensate for feeling as if he doesn’t deserve love. Though Jake wasn’t to blame for his car’s tree-wrap-around, Clint Cochran, his best friend, was left disabled and another friend, Angela, dead. Clint’s an interesting and complex character himself and plays both a sympathetic and villainous role in the narrative. Things heat up between Jake and Eva with some accidental touching and not so accidental kissing and Ms Talley has herself another winning romance after a so-so start.
One of the keys to great romance is trope-manipulation, not in a Machiavellian sense, but in an original, watch-me-do-something-engaging-and-great sense. The friends-to-lovers trope is not one of Miss Bates’ grab-me-from-the-first favourites and yet, she’s read enough to know that she’ll enjoy it. It’s a trope rendered more believable if one of the two friends carries a torch. It means there’s already “something there,” something to build on and feelings don’t come out of the blue. In Jake and Eva’s case, the torch is Eva’s to carry, but her level-headedness and Jake’s reputation make the cease-and-desist of their burgeoning attraction convincing. Moreover, Talley’s portrait of Jake and Eva’s friendship is real: with conversations and shared fun, and philosophizing and, most importantly, trust. But it’s friendship’s confines that have made it good and sex, love, change can ruin something worth keeping and cherishing. Talley writes a great scene as feelings and hearts change: it’s painful, true, and beautifully told. Here’s Jake asking Eva for “something more” and her refusal:
“So the answer is no? Because you’ve already decided you know me. You’ve decided I’m that kind of guy, huh?”
“I think the answer has to be no,” she said, sorrow coating her words, making her voice raspy. “We can’t be selfish to take what we want without foreseeing the ramifications. The downside is too bumpy.”
He felt for the doorknob, her rejection stinging him. He felt under assault – his character assassinated. But it had all been brought on by his choice to live as he’d lived. Jake now reaped what he’d sowed. Eva thought he was pure heartbreak. “So this is what we’re left with? A strained friendship?”
Eva stood, her chin relaying [the almighty “chin,” folks, reigns in rom] her determination even as her hands trembled. “I want you, Jake,. That’s something I can’t deny, but I couldn’t bear if if you weren’t in my life. I”ll take what we have over what we could lose. I’ve spent three years pretending. I’ll deal.”
Jake opened the door, turning back to her. “You’re afraid.” Eva nodded. “That’s no way to live, Eva.”
“Says the pot to the kettle.” Jake flinched … He gave her a curt nod, afraid of the emotion churning inside him … Though he wanted Eva with a need that had shaken him like a sapling in a hurricane, he respected her feelings.
“Good night, Jake.” He walked out, not bothering to shut the door. Somehow he couldn’t. It was too final. “Hey,” she whispered from the doorway.
Jake turned, “Yeah?”
“Tonight was hard after what happened, you know? But it will get better. We’re good, okay?”
… “Sure.” She shut the door softly, like an apology.
This is a beautifully orchestrated scene and a great argument for what rom can do, is it not? It’s so darn skillful: there’s tenderness and regret, honesty and affection. Here are two people, at a difficult, altering moment in their relationship, and yet they’re also so familiar to each other. It’s friends-to-lovers done well, done believably. As the romance arc curves to its grovelly conclusion, it’s no wonder, and a testament to Talley’s talent with the trope, that Sweet Southern Nights‘ moment of recognition comes in the line, ” ‘You are a dumb-ass,’ she whispered.”
The above passage contains something Talley does that Miss Bates loves. She weaves Biblical references subtly and organically into her text, as she does religion into her characters’ lives, without the hyper-piety of inspirational romance. Talley’s characters’ faith is a gentle guide in their lives, part of their lives’ natural rhythm. It is more allusion than creed. Even in the above passage, note how Jake is “reaping” what he “sowed.” Jake’s father is a minister. Dan Beauchamp and his wife, “Fancy” are pretty wonderful characters, not smarmily idealized. When Jake’s whole world is turned upside because of his feelings for Eva and his emotional contention with the accident he carries like “an albatross,” when all seems lost, his girl, his purpose, his identity, he wakes up and “goes to church” for the first time in a long time because “that morning he’d craved something different”. There aren’t any Jesus avowals, just his dad’s sermon, coincidentally and lovingly ironic on the “prodigal son,” and his family’s welcome with an eyebrow “wriggle” from one brother and invitation to lunch, Jake following his family home “like an obedient duckling.” When the HEA arrives and is rendered oh-so-tenderly, it comes in the form of a Biblical reference to Ruth, tongue-in-cheek but no less moving when Eva says to Jake: ” ‘Wherever you go, I’ll go.’ ‘You know that’s Biblical, right?’ Eva shook her head. “I wasn’t raised by a preacher.’ ‘Some stuff stuck with me, I guess.’ ” How could Miss Bates not delight in this exchange? Or in the promises Jake sees in Eva’s eyes and the one he most revels in, “the greatest of these is love. Yep, some stuff stuck.” It puts a new and better spin on faith in romance: marvelous as the road to Damascus is, it’s only love at first sight. The staying power is in Ruth’s “Whither you will go, I will also” and in a simple, beautiful verse from 1 Corinthians.
Miss Bates wasn’t enamoured of Sweet Southern Nights at first, but it sure did win her over, like Jake did “his Eva”. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says here is “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma. Liz Talley’s Sweet Southern Nights, published by Harlequin Books, was released on August 1st and is available, in your preferred format, at your favourite vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.