The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell was such an unexpected delight. Provided to me by NetGalley and the publishers (both of whom I thank for the opportunity to read and review), I confess the rather unusual and slightly formal title didn’t prepare me for the marvellous and very different content.
The novel is essentially two books in one, both of which are framed by the conventions of the world’s most popular genre: romance. The main narrative centres around two sisters: Lilly and Neave Terhune, and it’s primarily their voices that tell their utterly compelling story of growing up and entering the adult world pre and post World War II in small town America. The second narrative, which interweaves Lilly and Neave’s story, is called The Pirate Lover and it uses the usual romance conventions of the stricken heroine, wealthy, dashing and dastardly hero and a terrible villain to tell its tale of love, loss, and triumph over evil.
While The Pirate Lover is a rollicking romance in the grandest sense, played out in Parisian salons and the high seas, what occurs between the characters is echoed meaningfully and with chilling consequences in the sisters’ story. Both narratives also deal with the social expectations of women; how marriage is regarded as an inevitable outcome that should socially elevate them. Independence of thought action and through being financially independent is an outrageous prospect for women yet it’s precisely this that nevertheless, Lilly and Neave embrace. In this regard, both stories, but particularly, Lilly’s and Neave’s, portray a particular slice of cultural history – including, through their brother Synder, pop culture history (and I love the way Pywell plays with the devaluation of that; how it’s discredited as meaningless froth by most) – in really evocative and accurate ways.
Lilly could not be more different to her more forthright and yet romantic sister, Neave. When Neave is still quite young, she is hired by a wealthy woman to read to her daily, and it’s the relationship between the woman and Neave and the stories and books they share (and those they don’t – Neave steals a romance novel), that provide Neave with not only imaginative foundations, but emotional ones as well – which, for better or worse, will guide her throughout life.
In the meantime, Lilly embraces life, refusing to think too deeply about people’s motives or lack thereof or enter into arguments. Lilly is there for the moment; understanding and reflection can, if it does, come later… if not too late.
Establishing a successful business together, proving that women aren’t just ornaments or objects of men’s desires, Neave and Lilly, with their bond that transcends life, use their knowledge and business acumen to empower other women towards autonomy and freedom: social, economic, romantic and sexual.
But it’s the very same ability to forge careers and be single-minded and pragmatic, that also drives them towards men who don’t have their best interests at heart. When Lilly disappears, Neave’s world – real and imagined – collide in ways she never could have foreseen. Deadly danger stalks her and the family she loves and, unless she is able to utilise the help she’s being offered from beyond, then she, and the business she and Lilly worked so hard to build, is doomed.
While the novel draws on romance conventions, it also deconstructs and plays with them, weaving elements of magical realism, fantasy, history, crime and other genres into the tale. The writing is lyrical and lovely and, even if you think you don’t “like” romance” (all books are at heart, romance, even if it’s with the reader), the parallel stories – one very literary, the other more clichéd, draw you in and have you turning the pages.
My one slight issue is I felt the last quarter of the book took the magic realism element a tad too far. While I was happy to go along for the afterlife ride, it reaches a point where it’s difficult to suspend disbelief. Without spoiling the tale, there were elements to certain characters and the focus they were given at the end, which detracted slightly from what should have been their primary purpose – a purpose we’d been led to believe was the reason they still existed (albeit on another plane) in the first place. It strained even the credibility required to accept what was happening (which had been easy up until then).
Nevertheless, this is a tiny gripe about such an original, beautifully written and lovely story with lead characters to whom you lose your heart. Recommended for readers of romance, history, and damn fine books.