REVIEW: In the Clear by Tamara Morgan
It’s probably not a secret by now that I love novellas. There’s a grace and compactness to them that, when done well, makes for a beautiful gem of a story. And that’s what we have here: a beautiful gem of a story.
I was utterly charmed from the first word to the last. (Really from the first word. After I recommended this book on my Facebook site, one of my readers posted that it had the best first line ever. I’ve seen some pretty good first lines in my life, but this one still makes me smile every time. And then slowly start laughing again.)
First of all, Fletcher, the beta hero. Can we get a shout-out for beta heroes? For this man who has been in love with Lexie forever but is afraid of change, afraid of losing his best friends, twins Sean and Lexie, by being too “creepy” and letting his attraction to Lexie show. For Fletcher, who carefully keeps it all hidden inside, because his friends are so valuable to him. But who reveals his attention and love and care in countless tiny gestures. I adored this little scene, for example, when Lexie brings lunch by his workplace:
Burger and fries for him, milkshake on the side. A tiny green salad for herself. He arranged his food neatly in front of him, being careful to put the fries in the middle of the desk. For as long as he could remember, Lexie had a habit of buying herself rabbit food and then proceeding to eat most of her companions’ side dishes, never aware of her wandering fork. He usually ordered extra of the things she liked for that reason – she had no idea he didn’t actually care for chocolate cake.
I just love this. Love it. That silent attention and care that has been going on for years, without the heroine ever realizing it. Just for little details like that alone, this novella is a delight. I often highlight things authors do that I admire, that I would like to learn from. The second time reading this, I had to stop, because my text was starting to look like a bumblebee, and highlighting nearly everything does tend to defeat the purpose of highlight. But how can you resist something like this little capture of Sean, the brother?
“He’ll judge me. And don’t you dare look at me like that. You know how he gets when I’ve done one of my screw-ups…He gets that uppity look on his face and starts brushing at his imaginary lint.”
“He does brush at imaginary lint a lot, doesn’t he?”
Lexie giggled. She knew she couldn’t be the only person to notice that personal weakness affected her brother like a bad case of dandruff.
The word-lover in me is utterly delighted. A bad case of dandruff. It’s too perfect.
Don’t be turned off by the secret superhero announced in the blurb. I confess the idea might have stopped me, if I hadn’t already developed a deep trust in Tamara’s writing over the past few months, starting from when I first picked up Confidence Tricks (a thief caper with two main characters I just loved). Whatever else, I know that her characters will not be a facile cliché.
And Fletcher isn’t. He’s too afraid to fill out that college application and change his life, but he’s strong enough to save a woman from a frozen lake, and above all he’s strong enough to be there, be the one the heroine can count on, the one who sees her value and who will always be there for her.
And then there’s Lexie, just as vulnerable and determined, so sure she is a mess, the sidekick to her twin brother and his friend, still wounded that, somehow, she’s the third wheel, that Fletcher can’t be her best friend, too.
I’m delighted by her from the first, but I love her from the end of chapter one, when Sean, her unwittingly devastating twin brother, rolls his eyes at her table behavior and then shakes his head: “Never mind. I can believe it. And that’s why Fletcher refuses to reveal his secrets to you.”
“Because I lack finesse?”
“No. Because you’re you.”
She let out an irritated noise and promptly drowned every last one of her sorrows in her glass. She couldn’t count how many things in her life had been denied her by virtue of being herself. Success. Respect. Dates.
But after twenty-six years of practice and still not getting it right, who the heck else was she supposed to be?
Exactly. Who can’t identify with that feeling, or even that realization? Who the heck else am I supposed to be?
I love the way their relationship develops, the way we can see her trying to worm herself deeper and deeper into Fletcher’s life, without her quite being aware at first what that need to be closer to him really means. The way we learn that she does, in fact, know Fletcher doesn’t like chocolate cake, but doesn’t know to credit his reasons for buying it to herself. She, too, has her own insecurities, and the story clearly and believably draws the reasons for this. But while she may not know she’s in love with him, she sees him—truly sees him and cares for him—just as well as he sees her.
The brother, Sean, who stands in so many ways between them, limits their abilities to truly understand what is developing between these two, and yet also highlights that development both for the reader and for the main characters as they learn to call his statements into question. So, for example, Sean discourages his sister from calling Fletcher about her discovery of his hero moonlighting:
“You’ll make him feel weird about it. That’s what you do. Whenever you get excited about something, you bounce all over him like he’s some kind of trampoline. But Fletcher isn’t springy like that – he just absorbs it. And you never see the dents you leave behind.”
Lexie is understandably wounded by this and cast into self-doubt, but later she thinks: Maybe Sean is right. Maybe I do flail and leave dents behind.
But for some reason, she’d always thought Fletcher was the one person able to withstand them.
And that is the essence of this story. They are the ones who are right for each other. They just don’t realize it, partly because of Sean, and mostly because each one doesn’t realize his or her own rightness. That they are worthy people.
And Tamara Morgan handles this beautiful double trope of best friend’s sister and friends-to-lovers with her usual deft hand, deepening the reader experience with her wit and way of capturing characters, while adroitly avoiding the cliché. I love, for example, Lexie’s reaction to the compass. It was one of those classic Tamara Morgan moments, where I’m just starting to anticipate disappointment, just starting to think that facile cliché is coming – and then Lexie reacts completely differently from what I was expecting, and yet in a way completely fitting to her character and her relationship with Fletcher.
This twisting away from the facile provides a freshness and depth and reality to this story which, coupled with the insight and humor and the pure adorable charm of this couple, makes for a lovely way to spend an hour and a half. (At 37,000 words, this novella is actually close to the length RWA allows for “short novels”—40,000 words. The length felt just right for the story.)
An adorable and profoundly comforting story. I think it might become one of my comfort reads.
– Laura Florand
Laura Florand is the award-winning author of the Amour et Chocolat series (The Chocolate Thief, The Chocolate Kiss…), where sexy Parisian chocolatiers woo the women they love with what they love best – romance you can taste. Her books have been translated into seven languages, received the RT Seal of Excellence and starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, and been recommended by USA Today, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and Dear Author, among others, and twice been selected as Sizzling Book Club Picks by Smart B*, Trashy Books. They’ve even been selected for the infamous (legendary? notorious?) DABWAHA! She was born in Georgia, but the travel bug bit her early. After a Fulbright year in Tahiti, a semester in Spain, and backpacking everywhere from New Zealand to Greece, she ended up living in Paris, where she met and married her own handsome Frenchman, a story told in her first book Blame It on Paris. Now a lecturer at Duke University, she is very dedicated to her research into French chocolate. For a glimpse behind the scenes of some of that research as well as recommendations for US chocolate, make sure to check out her website: www.lauraflorand.com.