Courtney Milan, $0.99
Historical Romance, 2014
Rose Sweetly, a shopkeeper’s daughter, and her pregnant sister Patricia live quietly in Greenwich. Patricia’s husband is a well-respected doctor, so you can say that the Sweetly sisters have successfully moved up the social ladder a bit when Patricia married that man. Some people believe that these sisters are behaving in a manner unbecoming of the station that they should be in, because of their very middle-class tradesman pedigree and also because they are black.
Our hero Stephen Shaughnessy (last seen in The Suffragette Scandal) has no problems with Rose’s skin color or background, however, despite his oh-so-English boarding school upbringing – then again, he also writes for a suffragette’s newspaper and, in the last few years, had authored several books that had the more conservative folks reaching for their smelling salts. Knowing that Rose is a mathematical genius who makes a living as a calculator – doing all the maths for a well-known astronomer – he engineers events so that she can come teach him how to play with numbers. It’s research for his new work, he says, but we all know better, don’t we?
I don’t have as much luck with the author’s shorter works as I tend to do with her full-length stories, so I am not harboring high hopes despite liking the author’s previous effort. Talk Sweetly to Me is actually pretty fine for a novella, as it’s on the whole well-paced and Stephen can be very romantic in his generous overtures while wooing Rose. I’ve always said that the best courtships are the ones where the guy gets very generous, because it’s a sign that he may be just as generous when it comes to the divorce settlement. What? Oh, I don’t think these two would end up in divorce court, don’t be silly. They are a pretty good pair.
The thing is, Stephen and Rose could have been two of the author’s more interesting characters, given their backgrounds. Rose’s skin color offers a potentially heartbreaking perspective of the prejudices she faces as a woman – a common theme in the author’s works – especially since she doesn’t have noble privileges or wealth to fall back on. I also would love to know how Stephen end up being such a charming radical scoundrel. What makes him write for a woman’s newspaper and challenge the conventions of his time? Did something happen when he was younger to make his viewpoint different from other men of his time?
Talk Sweetly to Me, however, offers only a superficial glimpse into what makes these characters tick. There is a disappointingly conventional direction in the courtship of Rose Sweetly. Rose does try to keep her hands to herself, as she believes that men tend to assume that black women like her are easy to seduce and later discard. However, Rose’s behavior falls into a predictable pattern to the point that the author often telegraphs the upcoming scene with Rose’s behavior. For example, Rose would insist that she can’t go to some place alone with Stephen because she’d be seduced and that won’t be wise. Stephen coaxes her to that place anyway, and yes, she’s the one who gets overcome with desire and decides to find out what Stephen’s saliva tastes like. Rose would be funny if her behavioral pattern didn’t make the story more predictable than it should have been.
I’m also not sure about the inclusion of that subplot about a racially motivated asshole. This story, like many of the author’s more recent works, tend to bring out some pretty sobering issues mostly revolving around women of the 19th century, only to end up sweeping the heroine away from the worst of the injustices faced by members of her sex in those times for a happy ending that is sometimes too sweet for its own good. I’m generally fine with this because I read romance novels not expecting The Color Purple or To Kill a Mockingbird, and the author does a good job in delivering emotions and romance woven with social issues of the 19th century. Here, however, perhaps due to the length of the novella. the villain’s presence feels like a token inclusion to amplify the positive messages, and the end result is something overly simplified, especially when the good guys are presented to be unrealistically free of any prejudices in a “just because” manner. It’s all kind of like the PSAs in those Care Bears episodes. Diversity is great – have you hugged a black person today?
When I finish this story, I feel like I’ve been cheated of a potentially great full-length book. Both characters could have been something very memorable because they are definitely not the usual archetypes of the romance genre. So why wrap them up in a novella and send them off into the sunset like that?