Miss Bates rolled joyously around in Lucy Parker’s romance writing like the first touch of clean sheets. Before reading Pretty Face, she listened to Act Like It. MissB. is a fickle rom-reading mistress, rarely glomming, as she did when she first started reading rom ten years ago. But Parker’s original setting, flawed, likeable characters, and witty writing, who still manage to be heart-tugging and romantic, captured and held on for two days of continuous listening and reading. Though this review will focus on Pretty Face, everything she says about it applies to Act Like It (with the exception of one of the best audio-book narrators Miss Bates has ever listened to). Like Miss B’s Ruby Lang discovery, Parker made it onto a “not-to-be-missed” romance writer list by page three of Pretty Face and oh, ten minutes into Act Like It. There be many reasons why MissB. liked Parker’s work, but she’ll start with setting. Original, engaging, charming, Parker’s novels take place in London’s West-End theatre district, amidst actors, agents, directors, celebrity gossip-rags, and paparazzi bulb-flashes. Kudos to Ms Parker for normalizing the scene, for eliciting sympathy for the “pretty faces”, male and female, with their vulnerabilities, weaknesses, insecurities, and ordinary yearning to love and be loved, find a life-partner, and enjoy understanding, support, affection, and tenderness.
Pretty Face is the May-to-December romance of Luc Savage, restorer of the venerable old Queen Anne Theatre and producer of the Tudor-set 1553, and television starlet, Lily Lamprey. Lily’s stint as the promiscuous tv-sleuth on Knightsbridge is coming to an end. At 26, she’s contractually free to pursue her love of classical theatre. Lily is blessed with beauty, but cursed by type-casting and a voice that channels Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy birthday, Mr. President”. Nevertheless, Queen Anne’s major shareholder and Lily-fan convinces Luc to grant her an audition. While the 40-year-old seasoned-theatre-director characterizes Lily as “Helium Barbie” at first sight and sound – OUCH! – there’s something to her forthright manner, and sharp intelligence that pushes him to take a chance on casting her as Elizabeth I. What follows is an honest, funny, engaging, likeable couple making their way to each other through professional and family obstacles, as well as their own internal sabotaging. Though they appear an unlikely pair, Parker has an uncanny ability, in Act Like It and Pretty Face, to have the reader rooting for improbable pairs.
Luc and Lily meet in MissB’s favourite romance beginning-place, antipathy and sarcasm. What struck MissB. from the get-go was Parker’s wit, her penchant for pithy, allusionary metaphor. Yes, there’s Luc’s “prejudiced” initial view of Lily as “Helium Barbie,” but Lily is fully aware how her Knightbridge role, sultry voice, and ample curves lead others to assume “she had a brain the size of a Tic Tac.” *snort* *guffaw* went MissB. But MissB’s favourite Lily-quip comes when Lily characterizes her initial impressions of Luc as “his face retreated into the Ice Age,” and, BESTEST, “it was like trying to get a smile out of Picasso’s ‘Portrait of Gertrude Stein’ “. Lily’s wit impresses Luc as much as her audition when she describes Romeo and Juliet as “one of the great literary examples of unhealthy co-dependency.” What Miss Bates loved was that Parker’s characters were so well-read. And so very very funny about it. (Later, there’s a marvelous pun/literary allusion in Luc’s Christmas gift to Lily – not to be missed.)
Lest you assume that Parker doesn’t have a talent for gravitas, Miss Bates will use the dreaded word to describe scenes and situations that bring Luc and Lily closer and, sometimes, tear them apart (as any good romance does) – poignant. Parker doesn’t shy away from vulnerability and weakness. Lily is a character whose parents are negligently loving, and often absent. Luc is the product of a loving, affectionate, supportive family and yet, he’s someone who’s never been overwhelmed by emotion. Maybe because he’s always been part of something secure and safe, he takes security and safety for granted. Lily makes him feel otherwise. Lily’s feelings for Luc are strong, but her assumption of abandonment is stronger. Parker does a great job of navigating the uncertainty and, at the same time, joy of what Lily calls “recognition,” the “whole misguided, shivery shebang,” “like coming home,” discovering, exploring, and cleaving to the Beloved Other. (One of the most magnificent, silent recognition-of-the-beloved scenes is set in one of the best rom Christmas scenes Miss Bates has ever read.)
Austen-esque wit, rocking romance conventions, unique, compelling setting – is that all, Miss B.? Nope. Parker has something else going for her that Miss B. thinks is often one of the great romance narrative oversights – great secondary characters: Lily’s BFF, the pink-haired Thumbelina Trix; Luc’s urbane, charming, ideal-couple parents; his roguish brother; the roving adulterous actor, Dylan Waite; the tatoo-ed, talented make-up artist; Trix’s abusive ex; the gossip-rag’s vengeful editor; the prima donna star and her adorable bichon frise. They all, to man, woman, and dog, come alive in engaging ways.
Lastly, ever since she read Jen Crusie’s The Cinderella Deal and, with The Captain, agonized over Marianne’s rain-induced ague, Miss B loves a romance sickroom (she suspects it may also come from Heather’s on-board illness in Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower). A romance writer shows her chops in the sickroom because it’s great character-revealing opportunity. Utter vulnerability in one, because the body is weak and subject to illness and mortality; the other, whether hero and heroine, may be observed in all his/her reactions and choices to the other’s needs. Miss Bates would say that the romance sickroom can be as revelatory and compelling as those “other” bodily scenes, the love scenes. Parker, damn her little talented soul, can do both with romance, humour, vulnerability, subtlety, and truthfulness.
With her reading familiar, Miss Austen, Miss Bates loved Act Like It and Pretty Face and is now impatiently tap-tap-ing fingers and foot-jiggling waiting for Parker’s next book. Pretty Face proves “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Lucy Parker’s Pretty Face is published by Carina Press. It was released in February 2017 and may be procured from your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Carina Press for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.