REVIEW: Talk Sweetly to Me by Courtney Milan
Dear Ms. Milan:
I’ve had an odd pattern with the “Brothers Sinister” series — I’ve loved every other book. Which means three books I loved in one series — not a bad record at all. This novella falls in the “like” zone. Parts of it are delightful, but it never fully jelled for me.
It’s quite common for heroes of romance novels to declare that they like women, but Women’s Free Press columnist and Victorian feminist Stephen Shaugnessy — know for his “Ask a Man” column — means it more literally than most; he likes women for their minds and souls as well as their bodies. And he’s found a woman he likes very, very much indeed — his neighbor, Miss Rose Sweetly, who works as a computer. (Literally, someone who does computations.) Enchanted by her enthusiasm for mathematics and astronomy, Stephen arranges for Rose to tutor him as a means of spending private time with her. His motives aren’t fully formed, but they’re certainly not evil:
He wasn’t planning to seduce her, not really. It would be a terrible thing for a man like him to do to a woman in Miss Sweetly’s position, and he had a very firm rule that he did not do terrible things to people in general, and to women in particular. Liking a woman–even liking her very well–was more reason to adhere to the rule, not less.
Rose may be young and a genius, but she’s no fool. She knows Stephen’s reputation as a rake, and she knows the likely outcome for a black woman and shopkeeper’s daughter if she falls for his charm. And so she resists all of Stephen’s honest efforts to tell her how he feels.
‘If I ever have you in my bed, I want you to remember yourself. I like you. There’s no point having your body if you’re not included.’
‘This–talking to you, just like this–is already the point. I like you. I like talking to you. If you don’t like me, send me off.’
That is, she tries to resist it. But it’s hard to feel nothing for a very attractive man whose interest is so genuine.
He liked people. He liked her. She suspected he’d told her the simple truth: He wasn’t trying to seduce her.
He was just succeeding at it.
The novella is short, about 90 pages in epub, but there’s room for an important subplot about Rose’s sister, who’s close to giving birth and is being treated very badly by the racist white doctor attending her. This experience is pivotal for both Rose and Stephen. Spoiler (spoiler): Show
Spoiler (spoiler): Show
I enjoyed this story most at its serious points: when Stephen feels hurt and rejected — but never fails to be eloquent — and when Rose is struggling to help her sister, and to decide what’s right for her future. The parts that failed for me were the more light-hearted courtship scenes: for example, one in which Rose has Stephen calculate the odds that he would be able to seduce her, using factors like the probability that she would be hit on the head with an anvil. It’s clever and it’s cute, and I’m damming with faint praise there…. cute rarely works for me, especially in historicals, and the cleverness feels unnatural.
I also didn’t feel the love quite as much as I wanted to, perhaps because I’m not as enamored by discussions of math and astronomy as Stephen is. Or rather, the idea is that Stephen is generally entranced by Rose’s enthusiasm and brilliance, which is certainly believable… but I didn’t connect with his feelings. This is the same issue I had with The Countess Conspiracy: I’m supposed to love the hero for loving the heroine’s brains, but somehow I just didn’t.
But though it wasn’t a perfect book for me, there was much to enjoy. Both characters have interesting backgrounds, which leads to some powerful conversations as they really get to know each other. And there is definitely a sweetness to them. C+