Tuesday 28 February 2017

#CBR9 Book 16: "Pretty Face" by Lucy Parker

Page count: 264 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

In her follow-up to one of my favourite books of last year (Act Like It), Lucy Parker returns to the London theatre world, this time introducing us to acclaimed director Luc Savage, who has spent a considerable amount of his time and huge amounts of money restoring a theatre his family has a generations long connection to. He's planning to celebrate the reopening of the theatre with a prestigious play called 1553, featuring character studies of Mary I, Elizabeth I and poor doomed Jane Grey. Unfortunately, his first choice for Mary I was his girlfriend of eight years, industry darling Margo Roy, but they recently broke up after realising they'd both been prioritising their careers for years, rather than each other. To make matters worse, Margo went off and almost instantly married an Italian opera singer, going off on an extended honey moon, leaving Luc with no choice but to hire a hypochondriac melodramatic diva instead. Then his first choice for Elizabeth I goes and breaks both her ankles, and he's forced to recast her too.

His casting agent and one of the theatre's top investors are leaning on him to give TV bombshell Lily Lamprey a chance to audition. She's constantly in the tabloids and hiring her would certainly ensure a boost in ticket sales for the theatre. Blond, curvaceous, with a porn starlet voice, Ms. Lamprey has been the resident serial adulteress vixen on costume drama/soap opera Knightsbridge for the last four years, cursing the fact that she let herself get tied into a long-running contract and playing into everyone's expectations for much longer than she wanted to. Her looks and her breathy sex kitten voice has made her the victim of casual sexism her entire career and while she's willing to kill for a chance to prove her acting chops on the London stage, she's none too optimistic about her chances, having been told about Luc's preconceived notions of her from an intern who happened to be serving tea while the arrogant Mr Savage was considering Lily's audition tape. Nevertheless, though she believes it to be a long shot, she's not going to waste the opportunity and ends up impressing Luc despite himself. He believes that with training, careful direction and some serious voice coaching, there is a spark to Lily's acting that could turn into something truly special.

It quickly becomes obvious that there is a strong attraction between Luc and Lily, which both of them resists as with the close working relationship, it could spell disaster for both the play and their reputations. Luc's parents are still absolutely besotted with one another, while his older brother recently divorced a nineteen-year-old. The press is constantly inventing fictitious rebound romances for him after Margo's leap into matrimony right after breaking up with him. They'd love to be able to blame the whole split on him. Lily, on the other hand has a number of reasons, both personal and professional as to why she doesn't want to fall for her director.

Herself the result of an adulterous affair between her middle-aged politician father and a highly ambitious singer, Lily has been a favoured victim of the tabloid press for most of her life. With a mother known to use both her looks and sex appeal to further her career in a series of short-lived romantic relationships, Lily certainly doesn't want to be an apple from the same tree. She has three rules for herself 1) No significantly older men (she's 26, Luc's around 40), 2) No one in a committed relationship or just out of one (Luc's famously on the rebound after years with the same woman) and 3) No one she works with or for. So in effect, Luc is the triple threat of her deal breakers.

Despite all this and the professional distance they try to affect, it's quite clear to everyone in the production that Luc is rather besotted with Lily, and she's not unaffected by him. That the new editor of tabloid paper London Celebrity has some sort of personal vendetta against Luc doesn't help (the editor's grandfather apparently lost a fortune to Luc's grandfather - a rather shady sort), absolutely everything that can be scrutinised about the rehearsals and production is being portrayed in the very worst light. When Luc is called to the hospital because one of his family members is urgently admitted, Lily doesn't even hesitate, but drops everything to go comfort him. After that, what has been rather obvious to all their colleagues becomes gossip fodder for everyone.

While I suspect I will still turn to Act Like It when I want a witty and comforting re-read, I'm not entirely sure that Pretty Face doesn't in fact have the edge, and is an even better book. In the former book, there is a very annoying ongoing subplot involving Lainie's worthless toad of an ex-boyfriend and the ending goes a bit off the rails with the melodrama. It may be frothier and sparkier, but in some ways, I liked the serious undertones of this one a lot too. There are a number of reasons why Luc and Lily shouldn't date, starting with the power dynamic brought on by the age difference and him being her boss. There's Lily's desire to prove to the world that she's a talented actress and that unlike her mother, she doesn't advance her career through sexual favours.

Luc has always been incredibly focused on the theatre and his career, which is why he and Margo grew apart and realised they just didn't love each other even half as much as they loved their work. Lily has, throughout her life, been reminded that pretty much everyone she cares about has put something else ahead of her. She can't really visit her father's home when her stepmother is there, as she is always a visible and painful reminder of her father's adultery. Both her father and her mother seem to only have time for her when business deals or tour engagements don't interfere. Even Lily's best friend and roommate, Trix, more or less completely abandoned her for a while, when she was dating a controlling and emotionally abusive guy. So getting involved with a driven, career-minded man (who also ticks all the other deal-breaker boxes she has) seems like it might spell disaster for Lily emotionally, not just for her future in the industry.

While it's got a more serious undertone, and the last third deals with Lily going through a serious loss and needing time to find herself and get her emotions sorted out, this book is also extremely funny throughout and kept making me laugh loudly and highlight lines on my e-reader so I'd remember them later. The banter is excellent, not just between Luc and Lily. There are a lot of genuinely supportive relationships, with cast members, family and friends. I especially liked that Margo turned out not to be a jealous harpy, but rather quite an understanding and supportive friend to Lily. Fellow Cannonballer and romance fan Ellepkay mentioned in her review how good it is to read about adults, behaving like proper grown-ups throughout, and I absolutely agree with her. I was also delighted by the cameo by Richard and Lainey from Act Like It, as it's nice to see them after their own HEA.

In Pretty Face, Lucy Parker shows that last year's novel, one of the most popular on the CBR in 2016, wasn't just a one-off. She's a very good and consistent writer, who's rocketed onto my pre-order list. I am eagerly awaiting her next release and more books from the London theatre world.

Judging a book by its cover: As Luc is described in the book as a 1950s Gregory Peck, I'm not entirely sure that the male cover model does him justice. The female model seems to fit pretty well with Lily's description, though, and I love the affectionate and sweet feel of the embrace on the cover. It makes me smile, just like this book did. I can't really ask for more than that.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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