REVIEW: Something to Talk About by Meryl Wilsner
Dear Meryl Wilsner,
The setting of you debut novel, a contemporary romance titled Something to Talk About, was one of the first things that brought the book to my attention. Entertainment industry settings interest me, but I’m a little leery of reading about show business in romances because I’ve seen it handled poorly in the past (Heaven, Texas, I’m looking at you). A friend told me she enjoyed the book, though, so I took a chance on it.
Told in third person past tense in the two main characters’ alternating viewpoints, Something to Talk About is a romance about two women, Hollywood ex-star / now showrunner Jo Jones (nee Jo Cheung) and Emma Kaplan, her assistant on her television show, Innocents. Emma is bisexual and Jo is a semi-closeted lesbian, but neither knows this about the other. In addition to being the showrunner, Jo is also Emma’s direct supervisor.
Emma and Jo have a great working relationship and like each other, but when Jo asks (in her professional capacity) Emma to be her plus one at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Emma is shocked. There have been racist and sexist speculations that Jo isn’t qualified for a job she is under consideration for, writing and producing for the next movie in the action franchise Agent Silver. Jo’s reasoning is that if she goes to the SAG Awards alone, she will inevitably be asked intrusive questions by people she dislikes. If she takes Emma, Emma can serve as a buffer. Emma hesitates at first but then agrees.
Jo takes Emma dress shopping and pays for her gown, since Emma cannot afford it. Emma is conflicted about this, and about the priceless jewelry on loan that she will wear to the show. As Jo’s hair stylist and makeup artist get them ready, Emma becomes aware of how attractive Jo is. And as it turns out, there’s an unexpected consequence to Emma’s attendance at the award show—paparazzi immortalize their closeness and the photo of them laughing together sets off a flurry of rumors that Jo is dating Emma.
Jo decides not to comment. She has never commented on her personal life in the past and she feels that doing that now would make this particular bit of gossip stand out, and might call more attention to it and lead to greater speculation about the nature of their relationship.
Despite her decision, the paparazzi don’t let up, and the situation is exacerbated by a leak. Someone on the set of Innocents is dropping seemingly juicy tidbits to the media, such as that Emma was the one who decided to put together a press release with testimonials from the cast and crew to combat the racist, sexist and snide opinions about Jo’s qualifications for her upcoming job.
The constant scrutiny makes Emma and Jo more self-conscious. They question their behavior with one another, and things that were matter-of-fact before, like a casual touch on the arm, now seem like fodder for gossip. But the media’s attention also serves as a crucible, intensifying their awareness of each other’s attractive qualities.
In summertime, while the show is on hiatus, Jo and Emma work alone, and without the leaker around, they relax, get looser, and come to know each other better. Jo even trusts Emma with her work on the top-secret script she is drafting for Agent Silver.
But a significant conflict crops up when Jo runs into Emma’s sister, Avery, at her nephew’s Little League game. Jo and Avery sit together for several of these games, and neither of them mentions it to Emma, each leaving it to the other. As time goes on, it gets harder and harder for Jo to bring it up. At some point, Jo decides to “invest” in Avery’s baking business by providing a loan that will allow Avery to hire more people. Emma finds out and is devastated. She thought she was Jo’s friend, but apparently not, since Jo didn’t even tell her.
Will Jo find a way to make it up to Emma? Will Emma and Jo articulate their desires? And how can they possibly date with the bonfire of rumors that their friendship is a #metoo situation? Can a relationship between them work, given that Jo is Emma’s boss?
Something to Talk About was a highly enjoyable book, first and foremost because the characters are endearing and their mistakes are human. Jo and Emma are a study in contrasts. Emma is bubbly where Jo is reserved. Jo is in her early forties; Emma is twenty-seven. Emma is tall and Jo is small. Emma is enthusiastic and even still a little starstruck, while Jo has seen a lot and takes most things in stride. But both excel at their roles and they like working together.
Jo has a long history in the industry; she grew up in front of television viewers in her eight years as a star of The Johnsons Dynasty. In her early twenties Jo graduated to acting in movies; all four were blockbusters. But when she called out the industry’s racism in a column, it got harder for her to find work, so she started writing and producing her own projects.
Emma was plucked from the show’s prop team when Jo noticed her devotion to her work. Emma’s lifelong dream is to direct, but when Jo offers to give her job references and suggestions as she has for previous assistants, Emma doesn’t know how to tell Jo. She doesn’t have Jo’s self-assurance.
(I was a bit confused about Emma’s backstory, though. At one point it’s stated that “Emma had forgiven too many people in her life too easily,” but it’s a throwaway line and we never learn when and how this happened.)
There is a lot of competence porn in the book; both women excel at their jobs and are dedicated to them. Emma is far more than a mere secretary; she has her fingers in a lot of show-related pies. Jo oversees a big team of cast and crew expertly. Emma always checks to make sure Jo doesn’t need her before she leaves work. Jo is a kind and observant boss and she makes it her policy to be careful about how she wields her power.
Two secondary characters also shine, Avery’s sister Emma and Jo’s friend Evelyn. They both love to tease, dish, and laugh, as well as to speculate about Jo and Emma’s relationship. And while their function with regard to Emma and Jo, respectively, is very similar, they read as distinct. They too excel at their jobs (bakery owner and attorney) and as with Jo and Emma’s competency, this is shown, not just told.
The book was also diverse. In addition to being lesbian (Jo) and bisexual (Emma), Jo is Chinese American and Emma is Jewish. The author, neither Chinese American nor Jewish, got the Jewish cultural stuff right (I can’t speak to how she did with the Chinese American aspects since I have no expertise there).
Much of the entertainment industry’s depiction didn’t strike jarring notes with me. A big exception was the premise, that an uproar that launches paparazzi and tabloid coverage could be caused by two women who work jointly showing up at the SAG awards together. Given that it had been twenty years since Jo appeared on television and movie screens, the gender of her date shouldn’t have made so many waves, much less alarmed Jo’s publicist. This is the 2020s, not the 1990s.
It’s also hard to buy that Jo would ask Emma to attend the SAG awards show as her plus one without realizing that Emma could be perceived as her date. Jo was not naïve.
The romance was slow burn. Some readers feel it unfolded too slowly.
But for me it was paced perfectly. I wasn’t bored or impatient at any point; I was fully engaged from beginning to end. By the time the relationship turned sexual, Emma and Jo had crossed several bridges and come off of each one feeling more confident than before. Not just in themselves and the other person, but also about how to negotiate their work roles in this situation. The care and concern they showed with that went a long way toward making me feel that they could navigate a romantic relationship in the Hollywood waters.
The other thing that impressed me was the emotional reactions of the characters. These rang pitch perfect. Some reviewers felt that Emma took things too far after her feelings got hurt, or that Jo was callous. I did not think either was the case. Although their reasons were not articulated, they were clear from the subtext.
It was clear that the author had put thought into how such a relationship might develop and what the workplace obstacles might be as well as how to delicately handle this potentially controversial theme. I’m fond of the friends-to-lovers and May/December tropes, so I enjoyed those aspects of the book as well.
On the downside, there were some craftsmanship issues. I counted over fifty instances of characters rolling their eyes. One metaphor, “Emma’s whole body twinkled,” confused me. That verb has visual associations and when my brain tried to picture it, I was flummoxed. Was her whole body sparkling? Glimmering? Winking in and out of existence?
While Avery and Evelyn were well-developed, other side characters, especially those who worked on Innocents, were underdeveloped and one note.
For that matter, I would have liked to know more about the kind of show Innocents was. Beyond the fact that it was a legal drama, I knew almost nothing about it—nothing about the show’s storylines and characters. Were the Agent Silver franchise films more like James Bond movies or more like the Jason Bourne franchise, or more in a Mission Impossible vein? Also not clear. Why was Jo’s goal to write and direct that particular film, rather than something else? I didn’t get a sense of closeness to or even enthusiasm for the material from her.
Jo had some characteristics associated with the hero archetype in m/f romances—she is older than Emma, has never been in a long-term romantic relationship, is more closed where Emma is chatty, as well as more confident, more expert, powerful, wealthy, and of course bossy, since she’s literally Emma’s boss.
At no point does Jo read like a man, her characterization is far from it. So it didn’t bother me much although I noticed it. I’m mentioning it in case it matters to other readers.
The identity of the leaker was no surprise; it was telegraphed early on. I have mixed feelings about the way this person was dealt with.
I wasn’t convinced that the resolution to the external conflict would smooth things out.
I had a blast treading this book. It is was very much a “get you in the feels” reading experience, and reminiscent of fanfic since there was such close focus on the characters’ emotions. This book wasn’t perfect, but I look forward to your next. B-