Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Sweet Talk," by Susan Mallery

The Chick: Claire Keyes, a world-renowned piano prodigy who returns to Seattle to help her fraternal twin Nicole and lend a hand at their famous Keyes bakery while Nicole recovers from gallbladder surgery.
The Rub: Her sisters (particularly Nicole) hate her guts for how her amazing musical talent broke up their family, and now even her amazing piano talent is pretty much moot thanks to increasing panic attacks when she tries to play.
Dream Casting: While reading this, I imagined Without a Trace's Poppy Montgomery.

The Dude:
Wyatt Knight (holy shit, I didn't realize how hilarious his name is until just now), Nicole's supportive, loving, and (soon-to-be-ex) brother-in-law, who wants to help Nicole through everything but also has a successful construction job and a deaf daughter to take up his time.
The Rub: All he knows about Claire is what Nicole's told him over the years, which has been nearly completely negative. Also nurses the heartbreak of his ex-wife leaving him three months after their daughter was born.
Dream Casting: Firefly's Nathan Fillion. Manly? Check. Rugged? Check. Hot? Double-check!

The Plot:

Claire: Hi Nicole! I flew in from New York! I can help!

Nicole: Really? Can you un-infect my gallbladder and make my husband an un-adulterer? I don't need any help from an egotistical, useless, manipulative, lazy...

All Nicole's Friends/Coworkers: ... narcissistic, selfish, pampered...

Wyatt: ... uncaring, ignorant, cold bitch like you!

Claire: *sniffle* But I brought muffins.

Nicole: Okay, you can stay. For a while.

Wyatt: Nicole says Claire is mean, and Nicole knows everything. And my heart was broken by a woman - surely all women are exactly the same!

Wyatt's Deaf Daughter: *signing* I need a babysitter/mom. Don't be a moron.

Claire, Deaf Daughter: *happy fun times*

Wyatt and Claire: *sexx0r*

Claire: I'm pregnant! Hurrah!

Wyatt: DAMMIT! All women are the same! How come all the women I fall in love with are capable of getting pregnant?

Nicole and Claire: *double-team sister glare*

Wyatt: Never mind. Marry me!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 No-Good Cheating Husband

1 Relationship-Aiding Child

1 Deflowering (sans birth control, nice)

1 Use of Designer Shoe as a Weapon

2 Surgeries

1 Coming-Of-Age

The Word:
Man, and I thought my sisters and I didn't get along. Meet the Keyes sisters - fraternal twins Nicole and Claire, and younger sister Jesse. At the age of three, Claire displayed a miraculous talent with the piano, and her life changed. By the time she was six, she was taken away by her grandmother to develop her talent and start touring. While she amassed fame and fortune, she lived a rigidly scheduled, limited, and lonely life. Her demanding manager controls nearly every aspect of her life, she's grown up with no idea how to cook, clean, or drive, she barely remembers which hotel she stays in anymore, and to top it all off the stress of her clockwork existence is giving her panic attacks which prevent her from playing. She misses her home and her sisters, and longs for a life with family and warmth.

However, her sister Nicole sees things differently. Left behind to practically raise their younger sister Jesse and take over the household chores and the bakery after their mother left to tour with Claire, Nicole lived a life of sacrifice and hard work. Nicole looks at Claire's life and sees it as one of wealth, excitement, and ease, and bitterly resents how she got left behind to deal with the dirty work. She blames Claire for the hard life she's led and has convinced herself (and others) that Claire is a worthless, pampered, and egotistical princess-bitch.

Now, when Claire receives a phone call from Jesse telling her to come home, she's elated. Jesse informs her, rather vaguely, that Nicole is about to have invasive surgery and will need someone to help around the house and with the bakery while she recovers. Normally Jesse would, but things are "complicated." Glowing with happiness at the opportunity to reunite with her family, Claire practically floats over to Seattle, only to run into a rather nasty surprise.

Not only has Nicole not requested Claire come home, but Claire is just the rotten, mouldy cherry on top of the shit-sundae that has been Nicole's life recently. On top of the painful surgery, Nicole recently caught Jesse, naked, in bed with her husband Drew. After throwing out one backstabbing sibling, the last thing Nicole needs is another one to show up in her place.

While incredibly hurt, Claire also grows a spine. Instead of slinking back to New York with her tail between her legs, she refuses to waste what just might be her last chance to reconnect with her family and she stays put. Her efforts are hampered by the fact that Nicole, having grown up in the neighbourhood and with the bakery, has predisposed almost everyone she knows into believing Claire is a manipulative, thoughtless, and entitled woman who abandoned her family to be famous.

One of those predisposed people in Wyatt Knight - Nicole's best friend, confidante, and stepbrother of Nicole's soon-to-be-ex-husband. He's attracted to Claire nearly on sight and is appalled at his body's reaction. He loves Nicole and trusts her implicitly, albeit only in a brotherly way, and as Nicole has spent years painting a completely unflattering portrait of Claire, he has no reason to disbelieve it and feels guilty for lusting after someone he holds responsible for Nicole's hard life. If he had his way, Nicole wouldn't need Claire's help at all, but he also has a business and a deaf daughter to take care of, so he can't tend to Nicole the way she needs to be.

This novel would not have worked at all with lesser characterization. Claire, as the main character, holds the story together and keeps it working. While ignorant of many things thanks to her hyperfocused prodigy lifestyle, Claire is a kind-hearted, determined, and sweet individual. Even though she barely knows how to open the trunk of her car, she admits what she doesn't know and then learns how to do it, which keeps her from looking like a bubble-headed ditz. Claire doesn't win people over by being particularly brilliant or clever - she wins people over by continuing to be cheerful and sunny even after the nasty things people say to her.

Nicole is a harder character to like, but it's integral to the novel's plot that we eventually do. The first half of the novel is a little frustrating as Nicole either blames Claire for things that aren't really Claire's fault, or acts on envious (and often ignorant and inaccurate) assumptions of Claire's supposedly fabulous life. It's especially difficult as the novel is told mostly from Claire's point of view (and only rarely from Nicole's), so the audience has a full view of the kind, loving, and determined nature of Claire but only the barest of glimpses into why Nicole insists on insulting her. However, the second half of the novel, as Nicole begins to thaw, she's revealed as a woman who finds it easier to be angry and believe the worst than to trust someone and only be disappointed.

Third sister Jesse is a little waffley - she spends most of her "screentime" crying, begging forgiveness, losing her temper at not being immediately forgiving, and denying sleeping with Nicole's husband while at the same time refusing to explain what actually happened. It's obvious that the truth behind Jesse and Drew is being saved for her own book (Sweet Trouble), but it doesn't make her character any more understandable in this one.

You may find it odd that I've discussed the heroine and her sister more than I have the hero. Well, this is an interesting novel in that the romance doesn't exactly claim centre stage as much as I thought it would. The way I read the novel, most of the story deals with how Claire and Nicole overcome their differences and how Claire becomes a more well-rounded human being than with how Claire and Wyatt get it on. I also felt the relationship between Claire and Nicole to be better written and developed than Claire and Wyatt's relationship.

The biggest reason Wyatt doesn't want to get involved with Claire is because of the picture Nicole's painted of her. As Claire's actual behavior erodes away opinions built on hearsay, most of the obstacles Claire and Wyatt face are Claire's social inexperience and Wyatt's previous experience with heartbreak. Wyatt possesses a mild example of the "all women are alike" cliche - after being betrayed by the mother of his child, he's pursued by the haunting (and irrational) suspicion that every woman he meets will eventually do the same. Claire and Wyatt's relationship is a little uneven, and if it had taken up more room in the novel I probably wouldn't have liked it nearly as much. As it was, it played an entertaining second-fiddle. Claire finding love is merely one part of how Claire comes out of her shell and becomes a person and a sister, rather than just a prodigy. Sweet Talk was an incredibly fun read, and I look forward to reading the sequels, Sweet Spot (which deals with Nicole) and Sweet Trouble (Jesse's side of the story). B+

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