Liz Talley’s Perfectly Charming is her second Montlake-published Morning Glory novel. Talley used to write great Super-romance for Harlequin. While Miss Bates loved Talley’s Harlequin work, the first Morning Glory, Mississippi, novel was shrug-worthy. But Talley is a strong enough writer to convince MissB. to give the series another try. The series premise is an interesting, though conventional one. Three childhood friends lose #4 in their tight, supportive circle to cancer. Lucy leaves a charm bracelet and wish for each with enough money attached that each heroine can have an adventure, take a chance, and make a change in her life. When her life has taken its turn, she passes the bracelet on. Jessica Culpepper, Perfectly Charming‘s heroine, has already had her life turned upside down when the novel opens. Her “American Dream” existence, the cheerleader who married the wealthy high school football star and had a white-picket fence life, ended in divorce when Benton slept with the florist and told Jess their marriage no longer fulfilled him. Jess’s world crashed, but Lucy’s legacy allows her to leave her loving Morning Glory family and friends, to take a nursing job in Pensacola. Now a year after the divorce, Jess has healed and Florida is the final step in making her psychic cure complete.
Her first night in Florida proves to be anything but restful when her neighbour’s birthday party keeps her up. Jess gets up to give them a piece of her matronly mind when her night-time foray has her trip over a naked “hottie” passed out on the sand three sheets to the wind. Even though Jess’s ire is high, she can’t abandon her inebriated neighbour: ” … she’d been raised by a Sunday school teacher … taken an oath to devote herself to those placed in her care. She’d tripped over him, and now he was hers to aid.” Jess’s response to her naked Adonis tells us a lot about her. Jess is a well-brought-up small-town girl with a strong sense of responsibility and the desire to make things better for the people around her. This detail will give us insight into the reasons Jess’s marriage was all-give and no-take on her part and why her selfish husband was content to let Jess do all the psychic and literal work.
Talley has written a funny and perceptive meet-cute. Drunk “hottie” is, of course, our beach-bum hero. But appearances are deceiving: while Jess yearns to recover her identity; our hero, we soon learn, has transformed his systematically on the basis of rejecting everything about himself. Though not immediately apparent to Jess, David-on-the-beach is none other than her nerdy high school lab partner, Dr. Ryan Reyes, former child genius and Stanford Ph.d who sold his biometrical idea and retired to Florida to run a recreational fishing boat. Ryan wanted nothing more than to be a regular guy: “Windblown, loose, and chilled. Yes, that was who he was now.” Ryan suppressed every intellectual and hermetic thing about himself because he wanted to sow wild oats and do all those things he missed as a fourteen year-old college freshman and all the years that followed dedicating himself to research and his parents’ aspirations for his extraordinary gift. Ryan’s psychological about-face goes deep into his past and gives us insight into what it means to be different in the fraught, cruel world of high school cheerleaders and jocks.
Presently, while Ryan loves his lady-loving, hard-drinking life, “Sometimes his good-time Charlie demeanor slipped and he drew into himself. Being social wore him out.” He suppresses his naturally-inclined introversion for dude-hood. Some of Talley’s funniest writing occurs describing Ryan’s outward demeanor and inner struggle: “Shutting the door, he dropped the towel. Then turned and looked at it. Because he wanted to pick it up and not leave it lying on the floor. He made himself walk away, padding naked into the kitchen. Then he forced himself to unscrew the lid of the 2 per cent milk and drink from the carton. He even scratched his balls while doing so. Because he was a man. A regular dude. Not a genius. Just a dude.” When Ryan sobers up sufficiently to recognize Jess, he realizes there’s one thing he never left behind in Morning Glory: his love for the beautiful, kind cheerleader who never tormented or teased him – Jess Culpepper.
Talley’s second Morning Glory novel is a wonderful account of two likeable people working out their identities. At first, Ryan is the stronger of the two. Jess’s confidence is blown, even while her heart has healed. She wants to date and make new friends, but she misses her old life ” … underneath her declarations of what was good for her was a longing to connect to who she truly was – a small-town girl missing her life.” Connecting with Ryan makes all the difference. They’re both initially skittish about commitment; Jess, because she doesn’t want to fixate on her “rebound guy”; and Ryan because loving Jess doesn’t fit his vision of cultivated dissolute bachelorhood. Their affair is affectionate, caring, and fun, but it’s easy to sense that their penchant for casual will cause them pain. Neither is “casual” and their growing feelings are dormant only to them.
The past will have its reckoning when Rosemary, Morning Glory’s first novel’s heroine, insists that Jess come home for her wedding. Jess wants to go home, misses her family and friends, but isn’t keen on seeing her ex and his latest girlfriend. Even though Ryan hates everything he was and everything that happened to him in Morning Glory, he cares too much for Jess to refuse her request to accompany her home. Ryan doesn’t want to confront what he deems his parents’ disappointment in his new life, nor does he want to see the people who bullied him in high school. Returning to Morning Glory brings out the worst in Jess and Ryan. He withdraws while she struggles with mixed feelings about being home and seeing Benton. Nevertheless, Jess notices Ryan’s difficulties: “She’d been so focused on her own healing, they’d not talked much about his feelings about growing up in a world that wasn’t forgiving of being different.” This is mere lull in the reckoning of feelings and truths between them, especially those involving Jess’s ex.
Ryan’s self-doubt, feeling like he’s back to being the town weirdo and reject, and Jess’s fear of hurt and rejection when she realizes she may be in love with Ryan, result in one of the most glorious couple-fights Miss Bates has read in romance. One phrase sums it up beautifully and points to the romance-narrative’s most important break-down point, one Miss Bates insists is crucial to its understanding: “She was unable to stop herself from flinging knives at him. Jess glanced up to see the disbelief in his eyes, the betrayal.” [Emphasis Miss Bates’s.] Ryan and Jess have to make their way back to each other (as the best in romance couple-hood do) to show the gaining of the new strength and understanding in love that ensures the HEA’s solidity. That Talley can do that so so well and throw in an Elvis impersonator makes reading Perfectly Charming a must. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. (Sorry about the pun … 😉
Liz Talley’s Perfectly Charming is published by Montlake Romance. It was released in September 2016 and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-galley from Montlake, via Netgalley.