Lucy Parker’s Headliners flows out of the events of London Celebrities #4, The Austen Playbook, and the goodness of the former flows like honey out of the latter’s wonderfulness. (Did I maybe love it because it cleansed the reading palate with joy after my dour Jean Brodie read? I don’t think so.)
Parker cleverly situates the great betrayal, in this case committed by the hero, in Playbook‘s events. Journalist Nick Davenport exposed Sabrina Carlton’s father and grandmother’s deception in a news “scoop”, showing the artistic London world that Sabrina’s grandmother was the plagiarist of a famous play, The Velvet Room, a fact her father kept secret and benefitted from. It’s hard to fault someone for doing their job well, but the innocent hurt parties, journalist Sabrina and her actor-sister, Freddy, were the media circus’s reputation-destroying skills’ sacrifices. Nick isn’t proud and he is apologetic. He too lost something: his best friend, theatre critic “Griff” Ford-Griffin, in love with Freddy and now her fiancé. When Headliners opens, however, it isn’t only Sabrina’s career that has nose-dived; Nick’s night-time serious news program is gone. Sabrina and Nick are given an opportunity for career redemption when they’re asked to co-host a flagging morning show. If they can keep their tempers in check, not hiss and snap at each other, they can revive their careers and return to prime-time fame out of the morass of media notoriety. Two long-time rivals have to cooperate for the sake of their formerly successful careers. Can they do it, can they keep volatility in check?
Like her literary ancestress, Parker isn’t as interested in plot as she is in characterization, banter/dialogue, setting/atmosphere, and the exercise of her ample writing chops, which manifest as snappy, witty, and laden with tea-snorting-gaffaw-inducing metaphor. She is one of the rare romance writers whose metaphors I linger over and reread. Witness: “The man had a jawline that could slice a diamond”; “Her tone reminded Sabrina exactly of the head teacher she’d once had, whose disciplinary stare could wither a cactus from fifty paces”; and my favourite, because Parker nails metaphor and allusion all-in-one, “Freddy turned to look at her fiancé, who was talking to his dad. Her face immediately went full Barbara Cartland, and Sabrina was surprised the smoke drifting from the candles on the table didn’t turn pink and form heart shapes.”
Parker’s adept hand at setting, just as grand. An oft-neglected aspect of romance-writing, world-building is key to capture this reader. I thought I would miss Parker’s theatre-setting, one of my favourites, and the morning-talk-show scene, one of my least. But no, there was enough humour, including the bickering hosts taking an accidental dip into the freezing Thames, and atmosphere and secondary character shenanigans to render this as dee-light-ful as London celebs one through four.
Rather than linger on snooze-inducing puerile plot and info-dumping, Parker keeps her narrative moving with adept scene changes and then uses them for maximum humour effect. One of my favourites is Nick and Sabrina at a celebrity resort-wedding in the French Alps. The sight of a gingerbread-house-like structure lures Sabrina into the cold night by its cuteness; she ventures in, only to have the door snap shut behind her without a way out. Guess who she finds there, in turn weak on the cuteness-lure front? Turns out the gingerbread-house was the hotel’s cava and before you know it, two ole enemies are slugging back the housewares and “snogging” … but Parkeresque witticism never wavers: “Assuming that we will make our return flights tomorrow, and the staff don’t eventually open the door in a couple of decades to discover a roomful of empty bottles and a pair of middle-aged alcoholics, maybe I’ll come back sometime,” says Sabrina to Nick.
Parker even moves her narrative to one of my favourite places in the world, the city of York! And there, in a lightning moment of revelation, akin to Austen’s heroine’s realizations, Nick recognizes his up-to-now-uncomfortable feelings for Sabrina: “It was a strange moment, on a cobbled street in wintery York, outside an old-fashioned café, his ear numb with cold, to finally, properly, acknowledge that he was in love with her.” Parker balances her characters’ self-acknowledged feelings for each other with the incipient fact of their relationship. She doesn’t shortcut to misunderstandings, or slapstick. Two incredibly likeable people getting to know and like one another more and more and more … with really beautifully hot love scenes organic to their relationship and feelings. Given their career history, given their vulnerabilities, both with difficult relationships with their fathers, their slow movement towards commitment and occasional rifts, make sense. They’re not cataclysmic, but they work through them by talking, by being honest, and by caring about the other’s feelings. Wow. Refreshing. I loved every second of Headliners and the only bee Parker has put in my spinster’s bonnet is that I have a hard time choosing my favourite among her books. Please read Headliners: you’ll laugh, be moved, and cheer for Nick and Sabrina.
Lucy Parker’s Headliners is published by Carina Press. It released on January 20 and you should rush to your favourite vendor to read it if you haven’t yet. I am eternally grateful to Carina Press for an e-galley, via Netgalley.