Saturday, 16 November 2013

#CBR5 Book 134. "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" by Sarra Manning

Page count: 560 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Neve is in her mid-twenties and awkward around new people, especially men. She works as an archivist and seeks refuge in classical literature. Over the course of the last three years, she's kept up an old-fashioned pen and paper correspondence with William, one of her professors from Oxford, whose currently lecturing in California. During the same three years, she's also lost more than half her body weight (from a UK size 32/US size 30/European size 62 to a smallish UK size 16/US size 14/EU size 44) through a strenuous and rigid exercise and diet regime. William is due back in little over three months, at which point Neve is determined to be a size 12. She's sure that once William sees her again, he will love her as much as she has always loved him, and everything in her life will finally be perfect.

Her little sister Celia is not convinced that Neve is doing the right thing, pining for William and rejecting all other men. She encourages Neve to get some dating experience, saying that she doesn't want to be completely innocent when William finally returns. The only man she warns Neve away from entirely, is Mx, one of the assistant editors at the fashion and lifestyle magazine where Celia works, claiming that he's a bit of a man whore and will only break Neve's heart. As Max has a young blonde draped over each arm and throws an ice cube at her accidentally the first time they meet, Neve is pretty sure she'll be able to resist his "charm", yet ends up taking him home at the end of the night, desperate to get some of that precious experience with someone who seems to have lots of it. Their first night together is absolutely dreadful, and it's clearly better if she and Max never speak again.

Neve is put off the idea of casual sex after that first attempt with Max, but wants a "pancake relationship" to get some practical experience before William returns. Her theory is that the first pancake always turns out messed up and gets discarded, it's the practise run for the real pancakes. She goes on a series of absolutely awful first dates, and suddenly Max doesn't seem so bad after all. He finds the idea of a non-sexual relationship with a woman, where Neve can get experience with kissing, dating, and even sleeping with a man strangely intriguing. He knows he has the reputation of a cad, a shallow social butterfly and an inconsequential ladies' man, and to him, a temporarily permanent non-sexual relationship represents something new, an exciting challenge, so he agrees to be her "pancake" boyfriend.

Neve and Max have three months to practise before Neve hopefully reaches her goal weight and is ready for her HEA with the scholarly and intellectual William. Despite Celia and Neve's personal trainer's misgivings, the relationship, after a few initial hiccoughs goes pretty well. Max brings Neve out of her reclusive existence and shows her that social events can be fun if you're with the right people, and Neve gives Max a much needed grounding and stability. Yet the day when William returns is rapidly approaching. Is he actually the man she's destined to be happy with, or is Neve overlooking someone a lot closer to home?

A good contemporary romance novel is basically a romantic comedy in book form. There is a certain predictability and inevitable outcome in a story like this, but it's the journey, not the destination that is what makes it so enjoyable. I'm not going to say that the ending doesn't matter, because we all know that would be a lie. But the build up in a romance, the gradually developing relationship, that is what is really important for the HEA to feel truly earned and satisfying. From the setup of this book, with the bookish, innocent young woman pining for another man, and the introduction of the charming and worldly playboy, with their agreement to help each other test-drive a relationship so to speak - it's not really going to end with Neve going off into the sunset with William. The fun of the story is how two such opposite personalities as Neve and Max can realise how perfectly they compliment each other, and support and nurture the other, finally realising that they can't live without the other.

Neve has huge self esteem issues. She was always a big girl, and her weight ballooned as she was bullied all through school. She achieves something truly remarkable by losing so much weight, reshaping herself entirely and taking control of her life (some might say that her control tendencies go a bit far with regards to her diet), but she still has tremendous trouble accepting the praise and acknowledgement she gets for this from other. Even though she's come so far, only her end result matters. Until she is a size 12, she cannot relax, cannot settle down and she certainly won't be able to find true happiness. Everything up until that point is practise, meant to be left behind and discarded. She's quite blind to her own achievements, and rather judgemental. She believes all of Celia's gossip about Max and his irresponsibility and fickleness. There's a fair amount of slut shaming towards Max, even though he's never anything but completely honest about who he is and the way he lives.

It quickly becomes clear, that for all of Neve's body image issues, Max is the more emotionally vulnerable of the two. His lack of experience with long term girlfriends may be because he doesn't think anyone would actually want to commit to a permanent relationship with him. Both his parents are dead, his mother left him with a number of emotional issues, and the closest thing he has to a family are those of the footballer's fiancee whose chick lit novels he ghost-writes. For all her complaints about her parents and siblings, Neve has a close network of supportive family members and close family friends who have always been there for her. Max is drawn to that, as much as to Neve herself. While she initially is quite dismissive of him and his lifestyle, he doesn't judge her. Instead he tries to bring her out of her shyness and awkwardness, daring her to try new things. He admires her intelligence, drive and cleverness, and despairs at her blind belief that she's still fat and unattractive. While he hopes she'll change her mind about the no sex-rule, he never tries to pressure her and gives her the time and space to come to terms with her own desires.

I found Neve very easy to relate to, yet also wanted to shake her vigorously several times. Max is clearly a great guy, your modern day rake. He's got a good career, he's gorgeous, he's adopted a neurotic shelter dog and most of all, he's fun! William is half a world away, his letters to her show that he's unlikely to feel as strongly about her as she does for him (it's not like she ever confessed to her crush on him), and while I knew that she and Max would end up together in the end, I was not looking forward to the obligatory third act conflict before they sort everything out and settle down for good. While it's quite a long book, I didn't mind. I enjoyed spending time with the characters and liked the supporting cast of Neve's family and co-workers, and the gradual friendship developing between her and Max, which evolves into something romantic as their "pancake relationship" progresses. I discovered this book when looking for books for my A to Z reading challenge, and had such a good time reading it. Neve's weight loss battle has also helped me force myself to the gym a bit more often in the weeks since I finished it, as well, so added bonus there.

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