I didn’t even look at what the blurb for You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
by Sarra Manning was about – I was so pleased with Unsticky
that I went and bought it. It wasn’t until I started reading that I realized that this was a story with a heroine with weight issues – not my favorite trope, but I kept reading, and I wasn’t disappointed. It managed to not offend me by treating the heroine’s problem with a lot more thought than I usually see when this trope is involved.
Neve Slater was once morbidly obese, and weighed 358 pounds. She’s been working hard and is half the size she used to be, but she’d still like to shed some more weight and be a magical size 10 (US size 6). That way, when William, the man she’s been in love with since university, comes back from his three years overseas, she can surprise him with her improved self. The problem is that Neve has never been in a relationship, and this is where Max, her sister Celia’s co-worker at fashion magazine Skirt
comes in. Max is a total man-slut, and willing to be her partner in a “fake” relationship, where she can learn what it’s like to be part of a couple. With Neve and Max knowing that this is a throw-away, pancake relationship from the outset, there’s no danger of hurt feelings or becoming too involved. Right?
Neve Slater is a heroine who is very different from that of Unsticky
. She’s a good girl; more of a reader and thinker. She’s not much for partying (and has to be dragged out by her sister Celia), and works at a literary archive. And she’s got a romantic idea of what she wants in a relationship, as exemplified by her crush on William and her dream that when he gets back from the U.S., they can be together. Towards this end, Neve has been improving her body, writing him letters, sending him care packages and generally obsessing about his return. William’s arrival back in England is six months away when Neve realizes that she may changed outwardly, but inwardly, she’s still just as inexperienced as she was when he left. Luckily there is Max, her sister Celia’s co-worker and general womanizer who Neve went a little too far with one night when she was a little drunk. When she explains how she’s holding out for William but needs practice in being in a relationship, Max is completely fine with volunteering for the position as a fake boyfriend to figure out the ropes and then bowing out when William gets back.
This premise sounds a little hokey, yet it seems to be perfectly reasonable the way it’s presented in this story. Neve is not an idiot and this is not a set up for comedic effect. Instead the pancake relationship is taken seriously and has it’s strict ground rules. With his reputation as a shallow man-whore, Max could have been a big jerk (and Neve’s friends and family are concerned about how he would treat their sweet Neevy), but Max turns out to be a rather nice guy. For all his flirting and easy charms, Max is surprisingly caring and perceptive. It’s just that he has his way of keeping people at arm’s length, the way that Neve has hers. That’s why the “pancake relationship” arrangement is so good for the both of them. With Neve’s declaration that William is the man she’s in love with, there’s no pressure for Max and Neve to be anyone but themselves around each other. Things start off awkwardly between them, yet they soon settle into an easy understanding. Before long they’re sharing things with one another and Neve is surprised to find herself getting a thrill from seeing Max’s name on her caller ID instead of William’s.
When I compare this story with Unsticky
, it felt less dark than that one. It felt sweeter and more open. I think that although the characters had their share of problems (particularly Neve with her body image issues), they don’t feel as broken as Vaughn and Grace felt to me. They’re very different couples, but both these stories share the characteristic of really well plotted relationships, where small moments build upon each other to give us a satisfying window into a love story. (Speaking of Vaughn and Grace – I was eager to see any update on those two, but they’re mentioned obliquely and separately – not as a couple, but fans of Unsticky
will recognize Neve’s trainer, Gustav).
The only thing I was bothered by was how fixated Neve was about becoming a certain size, but I was eventually satisfied by how this was handled. And perhaps the only reason I was bothered at all is that I’m very close to someone with an eating disorder, and let’s just say it has colored my view of certain things. I believe that offhand comments that imply what a person should look like can be damaging, and that you can be gorgeous and still be a miserable, miserable person. I don’t have much patience for stories that feature some character who sound like they have an average body size whine about wanting to lose 5 to 10 pounds (*coughBridgetJones
cough*), and I’m also not fond of reading about characters who go from overweight and miserable, to svelte and have their self-confidence issues solved. Blergh I tell you.
Anyway, with these hot buttons of mine, when I read about Neve’s concerns about her stomach and her body while at a club with her sister, I was full of trepidation, but I soldiered on based on my love of Unsticky
. I am so relieved that You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me
has a character who has weight problems that felt realistic. I could believe in a character like Neve, who is incredibly smart and bookish and very likable, but who still has issues with how she looks, despite how much weight she’s lost. This is because the story doesn’t dismiss the path Neve had to take to where she is now. She may be thinner and have much healthier habits, and physically she’s doing well, but mentally she’s also still dealing her recent past, like a bully from her school days who torments her even into adulthood, and to a family member she won’t speak to because of what they said about her weight.
I liked how supportive and protective Neve’s family was of her, particularly her sister, Celia. Actually I found many secondary characters reacted wonderfully to Neve’s weight problems, including Max. He still managed to be something of a guy
, but I loved how he dealt with Neve’s hang-ups. Alternatively, I love how she dealt with his.
I want chocolate right now so I’m going to go for a chocolate analogy. I feel like You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
is milk chocolate and nougat to Unsticky
‘s 80% cocoa dark chocolate bar: less edgy; complicated in a different way; still rich and satisfying. After reading this story, I have that same experience of having pieces of the story stuck in my head for days afterward, but the couple is very distinct and separate from that of my previous read by this author. This is good. Also good: a heroine with weight issues that were thoughtfully done and a story that addresses a serious topic without becoming depressing. Yes, Neve’s body issues are a part of Neve’s life, but it’s not all the Neve is and not all that this book is about.
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