Dear Ms. Packard:
When I saw that your debut novel was set in the world of soap operas, I couldn’t resist. I watched soap operas with my grandmother when I was a little immigrant kid, newly arrived in the US, and I only gave them up completely a few years ago. Plus, Kathleen Gilles Seidel’s Again is one of my all-time favorite novels. So it didn’t surprise me that when I read the blurb for Love in the Afternoon, I was hooked. Despite some stylistic flaws and plot contrivances, this was a promising debut and a very enjoyable read.
Kayla and Sean are actors on the LA-based soap opera, A New Dawn. Sean has been one of its most popular stars for a decade, while Kayla is a relative newcomer. Her character Shay’s first job was to break up a popular couple, which did not endear her to fans, but Shay’s next storyline is much more promising: she and Sean’s character Jared will slowly fall in love, even though Shay is pregnant by her former lover and Jared is grieving over the recent loss of his beautiful and beloved wife (how can you not love soaps, with storylines like these?).
Kayla is thrilled to have a steady job on a popular program after years of guest appearances and a couple of starring roles in horror movies, and her unaffected pleasure in her new popularity is in sharp contrast to Sean, who avoids publicity as much as he can. Sean is the son of a legendary film and stage actor, but they have been estranged since the death of Sean’s mother when he was thirteen. His father James thinks that Sean is wasting his talents in soaps, but Sean rejects every parental overture, whether personal or career-related.
Sean and Kayla are immediately attracted to each other, and their Shay-Jared storyline reinforces that attraction with every scene they play. Both are wary of relationships, though. Kayla is a few months out of a relationship with an narcissistic, scarily possessive actor and is only slowly regaining her self-confidence, and Sean refuses to date other actors because he’s been used to try and get closer to his father. But their offscreen attraction is matched by their onscreen chemistry, and as they work together their initial lust deepens into respect, friendship, and a strong emotional connection.
They overcome their early suspicions and start seeing each other, and everything would be great if it weren’t for a stalker who hates Shay and seems to know where Kayla lives. And while the two are busy trying to protect Kayla and discover who is behind the threat, James returns to LA and (intentionally or unintentionally?) drives a wedge between them. In addition, there is a subplot involving Sean’s best friend, LA Dodgers’ star catcher Matt Scanlon, who is self-destructing because of a recent trauma but who won’t even talk about it with Sean, let alone seek professional help.
If this sounds complicated and over-stuffed, it’s not. The romance between Sean and Kayla develops slowly; they get to know each other, as does the reader, and the supporting characters are well integrated into Sean and Kayla’s lives. Sean’s friendship with Matt helps to create a richer context for his character, and I liked the backstory details, like the reason each drove a vintage car. When Sean and Kayla finally get together, the sex is steamy, but it’s also romantic, and we know them as people, not just hero and heroine.
The myster subplot is pretty predictable if you read much romantic suspense, and even I figured out who the stalker was (although I didn’t figure out all the twists). But it gives shape to the storyline and provides opportunities for Sean and Kayla to get together apart from work. I appreciated that while Kayla had a couple of TSTL moments, for the most part she was taking care of herself and fighting back. The conflict triggered by James is also predictable but competently done. The soap opera world is well developed, although it comes and goes, with more richness and detail in the early part of the book than we get later on. You nail the crazy plotting of the soap world, but you do it with affection:
Kayla looked up from the letters. “Wait. Did you say love interest? It’s just a couple of scenes. I don’t think I’m Sean’s—I mean Jared’s—new love interest.”
Amanda’s brows furrowed. “I thought you said you watched soaps.”
“I did. I watched A New Dawn when I was in high school. But not since I moved to L.A.”
“Okay, I’ll give you a pass then.” With a good-humored grin, Amanda folded her arms on her desk. “There aren’t any random scenes, Kayla. They’re chem testing you and Sean. If they like what they see then you can bet your ass Jared and Shay will be hooking up.”
“But…but Shay’s pregnant.”
Amanda shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Besides, she’s not even past her first trimester. Anything could happen to that baby. It’s a soap. Outrageous stuff happens all the time.”
“That’s true,” Kayla said. “I mean how many people do you know who’ve come back from the dead?”
There are some writing blips and odd choices. I’m undoubtedly the last person who should be criticizing the overuse of commas, but I was mentally removing them on a regular basis. And sentences frequently contained extra clauses which repeated or reinforced a point that had already been made or told us information we didn’t need. Substantively, I didn’t understand why the Dodgers were called the Dodgers but the SF team was called the Blaze rather than the Giants. I read an ARC, so maybe this is changed in the final version, but in my copy the inconsistency was jarring.
Those points aside, I’m happy I took a chance on a new author. I’ve been doing that less and less often lately because I’m tired of being burned, and I almost passed again. I’m glad I didn’t, and I look forward to the sequel, featuring messed-up Matt and Kayla’s take-no-prisoners sister, Kelly. Grade: B-