I was a great fan of Liz Talley’s Superromances, indeed one of my favourites ever is her Sweet Talking Man. There was no doubt then, though I’m not a WF fan, I’d follow her on her new-ish path into WF. So I read Room to Breathe, with uneven results: I still love Talley’s ethos and writing and I still don’t like WF. Room to Breathe is funny, witty, and offers loveable characters. It is organized around two main characters, not a hero and heroine as in a romance, but a mother and daughter: nearing-40 Daphne Witt, aka Dee Dee O’Hara, children’s author, and her 23-year-old daughter, failed fashion designer, Ellery. When the novel opens, Daphne, now a long-established divorcée, is feeling the effects of a dormant sexuality. Her ex-husband left her, claiming her then-new-found career interfered with their marriage. Like many women who married young and became mothers, Daphne is hurt and disappointed at the loss of her marriage, but loves her new-found freedom and independence.
While Daphne is on the ascendant, Ellery is anything but: engaged to her beautiful med-student fiancé, Josh, her loss of a covetted NYC internship sees her back home in Shreveport “supporting” his studies and working retail. Despite the rock on her ring finger, not all is well in Ellery’s “perfect plan” life: Josh is preoccupied, even indifferent, and her own career failure plagues her, as does her loss of security, comfort, and ample “spoiling” on her parents’ parts. Ellery is a spoiled princess with a Birkin bag and she grated for the novel’s first half. Room to Breathe‘s theme is as its title states: how Daphne and Ellery figure out how their socially- and, even more so personally-imposed, constraints are preventing them from living good, uncertain, but freer and most joyous lives.
Daphne is on the right track: she’s having her farmhouse renovated, put on the market, and moving into a smaller, urban, home. Her career is on the rise and she’s enjoying the fruits of financial security and independence. But when Rex Witt, her ex-husband left her, claiming she was giving all to career and not enough to marriage and motherhood, it drove a good-girl spike through her heart. She has worked through some of that, and also feels, for the first time since she had to pick up her life’s pieces post-divorce, physical desire. After too much wine, she sleeps with the 25-year-old contractor, who, for a few days, dated Ellery in high school. Daphne is mortified, but Clay, handsome, buff, and affectionate, is not a pool-boy caricature. He’s smart, sympathetic, and knows what he wants and what he wants is Daphne. Suffice to say that Daphne makes her way to an embracing of a relationship and an understanding of who she is and what she wants. I don’t want to spoil, but that is not necessarily the charming Clay. Other men come into play and we leave Daphne in a great place by the end.
What plagues Daphne above all, however, is her broken relationship with Ellery. One of the things I actually really liked about the novel is how Daphne comes to understand that Ellery needs to stand on her own feet and she, Daphne, doesn’t have to martyr herself on the altar of her daughter’s spoiled needs. Daphne and Ellery don’t ever talk their way to an understanding and reconciliation, but time heals. I’m not sure whether this worked for me because I’m of the time does work things out sometimes ethos, or because Talley failed to portray. Given that Room to Breathe is more comic than tragic mode-written, I’d say the lack of psycho-babble that permeates so much WF was refreshing.
Though less likeable, I found Ellery’s story the more interesting, simply because Ellery is a mess. She’s spoiled and, at times, petulant, but Talley does such a great job of breaking her down, in a comic, slapstick way, that you can’t help but like her by the end and wish her well. Ellery is a girl who wants a perfect life: her parents, together, indulging her; her fiancé, focussed on her desirability and wonderfulness; the fashion world, acknowledging her brilliance. None of this is happening and the more she tries to make it come to fruition, the more fallow her life-field. When Daphne, guilt-stricken, plans a birthday party for her at One Tree Estates, everything both falls apart and shows potential for coming back together. One thing I didn’t like about Room To Breathe was how things are worked out, or not worked out, with Josh, Ellery’s fiancé. I thought the revelations about him were trite and bordered on offensive. But Ellery’s comeuppance and eventually pieces-put-back-together was terrific.
In the end, the best thing about Talley’s novel was the humour. Talley’s light touch and ethos of never-taking-oneself-too-seriously but taking her work seriously works in her favour. There are many light, heartfelt, and engaging scenes in a novel that, overall, has flaws. Though I prefer romance-Talley, I will continue, for this reason, to read WF-Talley. With Miss Austen, we would say the flaws lie more in the genre than the actor, and Room To Breathe offers “real comfort,” Emma.
Liz Talley’s Room To Breathe is published by Montlake Romance. It was released in November 2019 and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley from Montlake Romance, via Netgalley.