Book Review: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sarra Manning


Title: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
Author: Sarra Manning
Genre: contemporary romance
Published: 2011
Rating: 5 stars

(Listened to audiobook)

Loved, loved, loved this book.

Neve Slater is an archivist (DON’T call her a librarian!) who spends her days listening to the audio memoirs of dead authors and transcribing them in the hopes that somewhere within them is a literary gem just waiting to be discovered. It’s been a largely unsuccessful endeavor so far. But she has found her own pet project: failed novelist and minor poet, Lucy Keener. She’s already read and loved Lucy’s autobiographical (and thus far unpublished) novel as well as her short stories and poems, and is slowly working through writing the author’s biography in her spare time—even though her boss at the archive specifically told her to send the twelve boxes that contained all of Lucy Keener’s life and works back from whence they came.

Besides her Lucy project, Neve’s other love is William, her student advisor from her days at Oxford. She believes they’ve always had a special connection. He’s been gone for three years, teaching at UCLA, and in the meantime Neve has devoted herself to remaking herself from head to toe. Through a rigorous diet and exercise program, she’s gone from a size thirty-two to a size sixteen—but her magic number, the number she must be by the time William returns, is a size ten. She’s sure that once she’s reached that magical point, everything will be different for her, and she and William can begin their happily-ever-after. Until then, she lives for their written correspondence (because “there’s a rich tradition of epistolary” in English literature) and his semi-regular phone calls.

While she’s perfectly content with saving her heart for William, it occurs to Neve (a self-described “repressed freak who isn’t even sure whether she was a virgin or not”) that perhaps a little experience with men before the love of her life returns wouldn’t be out of place. She comes up with the brilliant idea of a “pancake boyfriend”—a trial relationship that she can discard when William comes back across the pond, like the first lumpy, undercooked pancake that gets tossed in the trash. Now she just needs to find the perfect guy.

Max, the Editor-at-Large of the fashion magazine that Neve’s sister Celia works at, is definitely not that guy. Sure, he’s gorgeous, and everybody loves him, but has absolutely no morals. He is, Celia assures Neve, “a twenty-first-century manwhore, bless him.” Neve’s first encounter with him is nothing short of disastrous, and she never wants to see him again.

But an entire week of Internet dating disasters makes her desperate. So she and Max decide to give it a go….

And sure, just from reading the synopsis on the book you absolutely know where this is all going to end up. And you may even wonder why it will take more than five hundred pages (eighteen plus hours on audio) to get there. Trust me, though—it didn’t seem like it took eighteen hours. This book just flew by—and it’s all because of the characters.

First, Neve. Wowza, did Neve have issues. Actually, her issues had issues that were spawning more little baby issues. She is obsessed with her weight, her carb and calorie intake, and her exercise regime. In her mind, she’s still hugely obese and everyone around her is constantly judging her because of it. Her size sixteen clothes are starting to hang on her, but she refuses to buy new ones until she can buy size ten. Even though as a reader you can see all the many ways she is deluding herself (because, hello—after reading a single conversation she has with William, everyone else knows exactly why that guy is maintaining this relationship with her) you still can’t help but love her. Her insecurities aren’t merely completely contrived plot devices—Manning really puts you inside Neve’s head where you can see that to her they are real problems. Even when I felt like yelling at her, “But can’t you see that that’s just not true?!?!” I still totally bought that her character would continue to believe that it was. It was going to take a lot of time and character development (and yeah, probably some therapy as well) for her to be able to totally change her way of thinking.

Max—what can I say? I loved that guy. On the surface he looks like he’s got it all—he’s got a posh job with awesome perks, and he can charm anyone. Well, except Neve, at first.

“OK, tube it is,” Max agreed, because he was quite obviously emotionally tone deaf and couldn’t sense the huge “kindly bugger off” vibes that Neve was sure she was emitting. “You’re still mad at me, aren’t you?”

“You apologized, why would I still be mad at you?”

“One day we’ll laugh about this. When little Tommy asks how we met, I’ll say, ‘Well, son, I threw an ice cube at your mother, then slapped her arse, and we’ve been inseparable ever since.'”

Even Neve had to smile at that one, albeit grudgingly.

Neve comes up with all kinds of rules about their “pancake relationship”—which develops beautifully, I loved the progression—and it’s not until the book is almost three-quarters of the way through that they finally consummate their relationship. From day one, though, he’s been telling her that she’s lovely and he has had no patience for her constant self-flagellation. Max’s reaction to Neve’s insecurities about her stretch marks and cellulose was highlight-worthy:

“They’re disgusting,” she choked out.

“They’re your battle scars,” Max said, and he wasn’t even looking at her disfigured, mottled belly but up at her face, at the eyes she’d widened so she wouldn’t start crying. “You’ve been through something hard and painful, and it’s made you the girl who is standing in front of me right now.”

“Less fat…”

“Well, there’s that but you’re also a fighter and you never forget what it feels like to be on the outside and yeah, you are a bit fucked up, Neevy, but so am I.” He stopped and let his hands drop, so she was standing there of her own accord. “Why can’t you have a little faith in me?”

And when he put it like that, there didn’t seem to be any good reason to keep hiding herself.

Except of course she still believes that once he sees everything he’ll be as disgusted as she is by her body and want to leave…which she blurts out uncomfortably as soon as all her clothes are off:

Max rolled his eyes so hard that Neve could have sworn his pupils completely disappeared. “Sometimes I really want to smack you,” he snapped, and before she could point out that there was absolutely nothing funny about domestic violence, Max’s hands settled on her hips again. “Rather kiss you though,” he said, and he was falling backwards on the bed, and tugging Neve so she landed on top of him with a startled shriek.

Sigh.

The more we see of Max, the more we learn that his public front is just that—a front. He too has some big time problems that will need to be acknowledged and dealt with before he can achieve an HEA. Manning really takes her time in this book to show the journey that these two characters must take to get to that point. Absolutely no quick and magical fixes are in sight–a refreshing change!

This novel is told only from Neve’s point of view, which is quite different from the “he said, she said” style of storytelling that seems to be the norm lately in romance. Usually I do enjoy seeing things from both the hero and the heroine’s POV. However, I really think that seeing Max’s point of view as well as Neve’s would have taken much away from the story, so I’m glad Manning made that choice here.

I found this book thanks to comments made after a review of another book with an overweight heroine (with a completely different kind of hero, unfortunately) on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books site. One of SB Sarah’s readers suggested this book as one with a much better “heroine with weight issues/hero who is able to accept her” dynamic—and boy, am I glad I took her up on her suggestion.

In a nutshell: Compulsively likable but flawed heroine with realistic issues and a fantastic yet also majorly flawed hero. 5 couldn’t-stop-listening-to-it stars.

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