Just be Close at Hand

by Wardog

Wardog continues to bloody-mindedly review Sarra Manning’s adult novels.
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As you may have noticed, dear Ferretbrain, following my new year’s resolution Not To Buy Any More Shit, I have been attempting to clear my reviewing backlog. Once upon a time, I read a book called Unsticky, fell in love with it and accidentally caused a minor Internet skirmish. The skirmish is old news, my love for Manning persisted. Then I read two of her other books – Nine Uses for An Ex-Boyfriend and, her return to YA, Adorakable – and, well, let’s just say our differences are probably irreconcilable.

I hesitate to say Unsticky was a fluke because, as I said in my review of Nine Uses, I like Manning’s writing a lot. I’ve just stopped liking what she actually writes. At the risk of coming across like a broken record, romance is such a very personal genre. There’s no answering, really, what you like and what you don’t, the words and moments that move you and stay with you. On paper, I should loathe Unsticky and, even though the lurve haze, I’m capable of recognizing that it has about eighty million potentially problematic elements, but it happens to work for me.

You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me doesn’t tick my personal boxes in quite the same way that Unsticky did (which is a bit strange because on the surface it seems like it should tick more) but I’m relieved to report that it is no Nine Use For Your Ex-Boyfriend. I didn’t absolutely incoherently drooling-on-the-floor love it but I didn’t absolutely incoherently drooling-on-the-floor hate it either. And I’m calling that a win. It’d even go so far as to say YDHTSYLM is good – within the usual provisos of “if you like this sort of thing.” If you don’t like romance / chicklit to begin with, then it’s not going to win you over. On the other hand, if the genre doesn’t make you want to heap its every instance into a big pile and set the whole damn thing on the fire, you could do a lot worse than YDHTSYLM. Although romance often intersects awkwardly with feminism, I’d say it’s, at the very least, feminist-friendly. Which is what I need in my white girl escapism.

In many ways, YDHTSYLM is probably better than Unsticky, and it packs such an emotional wallop it’s hard not to imagine it’s coming from a much more personal place. It makes me a think a bit, actually, about the nature of romance (and I know I shouldn’t think about the nature of romance because it tends to lead me into bad places) because I have far more in common with the heroine of YDHTSYLM, and her life is much more accessible to me than Grace’s ever was. But, perhaps, it’s the very fact that the characters, and the book, seem situated one step closer to my reality that makes it marginally less satisfying as a fantasy. Or maybe I’m just being arbitrarily unfair, as is my inalienable right as an individual.

The heroine of YDHTSYLM is Neve Slater. She’s a shy and bookish Oxford graduate currently working as an archivist, a job she finds enjoyable but is in no way glamorous or fulfilling. As the book opens, she’s a size sixteen, having spent the last three years putting herself through the gruelling diet and gym regime required to take her from a size thirty two to an open-quotes normal weight. She’s in love with one of her Oxford friends, a chap called William, who has been in America for the past three years, and she wants to win his heart with her new, slimmer, more attractive, more confident self. But, having spent so many years in a cycle of self-loathing, she’s still deeply self-conscious about her body, and has no idea how to flirt with men, which leads her to start a pretend relationship with Max, a gorgeous journalist with a reputation as a womanizer.

I know, I know, we are back in Facepalm Premise territory. Fat woman loses a tonne of weight to attract a man. Ouch. However, since, in Unsticky, Manning managed to pull off a Pretty Woman without triggering a single eewwwch (for me, anyway, and I still don’t know how she managed it because Man Buys Woman should not be something I find even remotely okay), it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that she’s also just about managed to transform what seems like one of the most harmful romance clichés of all time into something satisfying, romantic and affirming.

I think it’s fair to say that William is only one motivating factor in Neve’s transformation – and, without I’m sure giving anything away, he is revealed to be, and perhaps always was, a hollow one – just, as hollow, in fact, as the conviction that you’ll be 100% more beautiful and 100% happier if you can just lose [insert figure here] amount of weight. Like Unsticky, YDHTSYLM engages with the complexities and the ambiguities of its difficult premise, and apart from the acknowledgement that there is no miraculous answer to confidence and happiness, even if you can fit into a size 10 dress, offers no simple solutions.

I’m not particularly intimate (har) with the genre conventions of chicklit or contemporary romance but, like Unsticky and the dreaded Nine Uses, YDHTSYLM is primarily about its heroine, and that’s what makes it bearable for me. It’s a story a woman making herself a place in the world, rather than a story about a woman who has to look conventionally attractive in order to have a place in the world. The romantic elements are there, far more strongly than they are in Nine Uses, and Max makes for a very charming hero (albeit not my type, being far too functional, although he is not without his vulnerabilities) but Neve finds love almost accidentally on her journey towards personal happiness:

It wasn't a perfect body but it was the body she deserved. Not just from every bar of chocolate or bag of crisps or laden plates of food that she'd eaten. This body was also testament to all the hours in the gym, and cycling up hills on her bike and glugging down two litres of water a day and learning to love vegetables and fruit that didn't come as an optional extra with a pastry crust. She'd earned this body.

That is the happy ending. Max is a bonus, not reward or validation. Moreover, Neve’s struggles with her weight are portrayed honestly – and they are a genuine struggle, not some kind of miraculous montage in which she runs on a treadmill a couple of times and suddenly acquires a new figure, a new haircut and masses of confidence. Her weight fluctuates relatively realistically across the novel, at one point going up because she’s living in a sex-and-food haze with Max and, at another, dropping drastically as she attempts a dangerous all-liquid diet, but basically she’s a size 16 at the beginning and a size 16 at the end. The difference is that’s learned to accept herself and like herself, which, in turn, allows her accept the love of someone else.

Neve’s troubled relationship to food is also sensitively portrayed. Like Grace’s self-harm profligacy in Unsticky, I admire the way Manning takes traits and issues relatively common in stereotypical notions about What Women Are Like, e.g. being into food and shopping, and explores their reality. It’s very easy to dismiss worrying about food as silly, superficial female vanity but, as someone who’s a big fan of the stuff, often to excess, it’s genuinely nice to read a depiction of someone else struggling with impulse control that isn’t played solely for laughs, or used to make a moral judgement about the weakness of their character.

She tailed off because no one really understood that food wasn’t just fuel or that there was no harm in a little bit of what you fancied; every meal, every morsel was a battle in a never-ending war.

The truth is, women’s bodies are very much public spaces – constantly subject to assessment and judgement, as are the ways we inhabit them. It sometimes seems to me like the only acceptable behaviour for a woman regarding her weight is the sprezzatura of the Elizabethan courtier: you have to be thin, because being fat is a form of moral weakness, but actively trying to be thin is frowned upon too. Essentially, you’re damned for eating, and damned for not eating, and caring about any of it makes you a typical, shallow woman who has internalized a bunch of fucked up values. So I very much appreciated Neve’s complicated relationship with food, and the seriousness with which it is portrayed, even if it occasionally comes across as comical. And I saw her battles with food and her weight not as a struggle to reflect a conventional beauty standard, or to find approval from the world by being thin enough to pass, but as a struggle to regain control of her body for herself. To find a space where the only judgement that matters is her own.

The truth is I admired YDHTSYLM more than I loved it, ironic considering the title, but perhaps that was merely because it hit a bit too close to home. Neve is sympathetic more than she is likeable, I think, and her arc is a difficult, complicated one. At the beginning of the novel she’s riddled with (entirely understandable) insecurity and at the end she has a major freak out that causes her to behave in a very selfish, self-destructive way. However, at no point does she reach Nine Uses shades of pure awful. Even when I was frustrated with Neve, as I occasionally was, I knew enough about where she was coming from, and was sufficiently invested in her happiness, to see the frustration as a necessary reaction to a complex, imperfect, plausibly real heroine. The supporting cast is basically sound – Max is lovely, and behaves in a manner that is genuinely well-meaning, although, of course, he occasionally gets impatient with Neve and doesn’t always behave as well as he could (again, this made him interestingly human, rather than some perfect man to come in and sweep Neve off her feet).

The weak link, in the book, for me, was actually William – the man Neve met at Oxford and believes herself in love with. Given their history, it’s vaguely understandable why she feels about him the way she does – it’s clear he paid her attention, and kindness, when she was essentially a morbidly obese, self-loathing pariah. But he’s also so self-evidently a complete prick that it slightly unbalances the text. It’s also blatantly obvious he’s not remotely interested in her from a sexual standpoint, and losing all the weight in the world won’t change that. Maybe I just met too many of his ilk in Oxford but he writes her these wetly flirtatious letters while also using her as his personal courier service and I was just cringing constantly:
William started off with a quick weather report and a request for a large box of Sainsbury’s Red Label teabags and a box of Carr’s water biscuits…[]

"It was so lovely to talk to you last week. The sound of your voice always leaves me feeling nostalgic for those long Oxford afternoons where we sat by the river (as I recall, the sun always had that soft golden glow but surely that can’t be the case? Because I also remember a lot of rain and you gifting me with a set of Tupperware containers to catch the streams of water that poured through my leaking roof)."

So, although it’s rationally possible to understand why Neve likes him, the fact that he largely comes across as a hideously privileged and cluelessly manipulative twat just makes her look like an idiot. But, frankly, that’s just personal nitpicking. I enjoyed YDHTSYLM a lot, and I’d recommend it without hesitation to people who like this sort of thing. If the dodgy prostitution premise of Unsticky troubles you, this one may be more palatable. And it’s infinitely better than Nine Uses for an Ex-boyfriend.

Thank fuck.
Themes: Books, Romance
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Comments (go to latest)
FelicityGS at 15:51 on 2013-01-27
You know, I'm probably going to need give at least one of her books a try. With how you gushed over Unsticky, and liking romance in general, I think it could be a good read, and this one sounds so my cup of tea it's not funny. So thanks for your bloody-mindedness!
Wardog at 22:34 on 2013-01-27
The bloody mindedness comes as standard with every model ;)

I feel rather like enjoying romance in general puts you basically into the "how to be a fan of problematic things" category but, the truth is, I do enjoy it, so there we go.

Although over the years my tastes have narrowed to this tiny little airstrip in the middle of romancelandia ... which means I get INCREDIBLY EXCITED when I find something I actually like.

I always feel hesitant about recommending romance books because they're so personal, and what seem like incredibly minor things to one person can totally ruin the experience for someone else, but I would say that YDHTSYLM is probably Manning's best work. I liked Unsticky more, but I can objectively see that this one is the better book. And if you like the premise, then you'll definitely like it.
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