I read Deborah Fletcher Mello’s The Sweetest Thing because Meoskop and several other people were going to. I would not have finished it otherwise, because I found the writing a slog. But I’m glad I did, because there were things I really liked, and a lot I want to talk about.
This is going to be a long one, so pour a drink and pull up a chair–or just skip out now. Above the fold I’ll discuss what I liked and what I didn’t, and below will be a more spoilery discussion of one plot thread, and some thoughts about the question of writing quality.
When the owner of Memphis’s most mouthwatering bakery, Just Desserts, suddenly dies, pastry chef Quentin Elliott and his brother, office manager Troy Elliott, are distraught. Everett “Pop” Donovan was more than their boss, he was a beloved mentor. So they’re shocked to learn that Pop left the business to his beautiful, estranged daughter—a woman they know nothing about—and who knows nothing about running a bakery…
Harper Donovan intends to sell off Just Desserts as quickly as possible. She has no interest in Memphis, much less sweets. However, handsome Quentin has definitely sparked her appetite—and business aside, the feeling is irresistibly mutual. But soon a powerful, smooth-talking rival appears, vying for Harper’s heart and her bakery. Harper might have a taste for Memphis after all—and Quentin might have to prove he’s exactly what she craves…
- “Pop” was a great foster father (now that’s a nice change) but he’d been estranged from Harper, and though that seemed to be partly because her mother was messed up and vengeful, he also seemed to have earned some of that ire. Harper’s need to come to terms with never being able to have a relationship with him, her regret and her resentment at being around “strangers who knew more about him than she ever would” were realistic and nuanced.
- Quentin and Harper’s romance is low conflict. There are good reasons for their initial reluctance to get involved and for Quentin’s struggles with trust, but Mello doesn’t belabor them or drag them out too long.
- Mello either subverts some familiar tropes or is working in a strand of the romance tradition that uses them somewhat differently from what I’m used to. At first we seemed to have a stock Evil Other Woman and Vengeful Ex BFF, but Rachel and Dwayne turned out to be much more than that, and for me the most interesting part of the book. I also liked how eventually I figured out that Rachel was white, from descriptions, but it was never overtly stated or made an issue in their relationship.
- This book was surprisingly dirty for a romance set in a bakery with church-going characters and wise grandmother types. I suspect–though I am in no way expert here–that this reflects a difference between African-American evangelicalism and white evangelicalism (the kind that produces sex-free inspirational romances). There’s talk here about saving yourself but that seems to be more about waiting for someone you love and respect than waiting for marriage. No one judges Harper for having had sex before Quentin. I liked this different style of religion in romance (I felt the same way about the religion in Piper Huguley’s historical with African-American characters, The Lawyer’s Luck).
The Not So Good:
- The writing was an almost constant distraction. I’ll talk about that more later.
- There was a lot of building tension and I thought Dwayne and/or Rachel was going to do something really awful but then it all fizzled out and the main conflicts were resolved at 70 or 75%. I wondered if there were going to be a ton of samples in the back, but no, it went on and on–in part dealing with some secondary conflicts, which were interesting but also quickly/easily resolved, but mostly with Quentin and Harper going on vacation and having a lot of hot sex. I skipped most of this. I am less interested in reading sex scenes in general lately; I felt the characters were already as developed as they were going to be; and Mello’s writing of sex scenes didn’t really work for me. (If your sex scenes are longish, detailed, and not prim, I don’t think phrases like “the door of her treasure spot” and “her sweet nectar” really work. OK, they never work for me). YMMV on all this; it’s absolutely about my personal tastes.
- Interesting as I found the Dwayne and Rachel plot and the way it subverted my expectations that they’d be villains, I also thought this aspect wasn’t entirely successful (and their characters were somewhat inconsistent). But most of what I have to say about that is spoilery and below the fold.
- There were some plot holes/things that stretched credibility. Even a successful family-run bakery is surely not worth “a multi-million dollar bid.” I was willing to write that off as the romance fantasy of everyone being rich. But the tension of whether Harper would sell to Dwayne made little sense. We learn early on that Pop left seven-figure bank accounts (of course he was a genius investor) to Troy, Quentin, and Harper. So if Harper wants to sell the bakery, why can’t they just buy her out? Oh right, no plot. Actually Troy pointed out both of these things in the book. Despite my struggles to finish this, I plan to read Troy’s book: he’s running for mayor and the heroine is Muslim. Don’t disappoint me by turning into an idiot, Troy!
Spoilers below, or you can skip to my confused, tl;dr thoughts on writing quality.
The Thing About Rachel and Dwayne
So, I said I found the Rachel-Dwayne relationship the most interesting thing in the book, and I did. But at the start it made me profoundly uncomfortable. Rachel and Dwayne seemed to be villains, and then they had a sex scene. I don’t like villain sex. It often seems to be a way of getting certain erotic tropes into a story for readers to enjoy without having to be OK with them (BDSM, homosexuality, incest–I’ve seen all kinds of ooh, dirty villains). And that was true here, too: there is an at best dubiously consensual scene between Rachel and Dwayne. He orders her around and plays power games. It turns her on, but she’s unhappy. They have rough sex, and sometimes he’s just plain abusive . . . or is he? Is it what she wants? (Also, Harper has a treasure box but Rachel has a pussy. She must be bad). In erotica I can be OK with lack of clarity around consent, but in a romance with a bakery it just didn’t work for me. It felt really creepy to read scenes that seemed abusive written with the voice/tropes of erotica. Was Mello suggesting that these things are automatically abusive? I thought the implication was that good people had nice, loving sex (if with fingers in the anus now and then–whoa, wasn’t expecting that!) and bad people had kinky, wrong sex.
Except then Dwayne and Rachel weren’t over the top villains after all. We got scenes from their point of view and found they were confused and hurting. I thought Dwayne was going to try to rape Harper or something when he flew her to Baton Rouge–he’d seemed so menacing. But then he turned into a sad little boy who needed love but didn’t know how to accept it. This change didn’t entirely work for me; his character, especially, felt inconsistent. But it also made me think about how I’d read the early scenes with Rachel and Dwayne through the lens of romance tropes I’m familiar with, and maybe I failed to recognize that Mello is working with different tropes. Maybe I lacked the expertise to properly interpret the opening Dwayne and Rachel scenes.
I was also interested in the way the concerns I had about the early sex scenes were resolved:
He suddenly realized that what they shared behind closed doors, the fetishes Rachel yearned for in bed, was far different from the abuse he had thought to inflict on her.
They learn to be kinky with consent and love. So my initial impression of how Mello was judging their desires was off, too. I think the writing was part of the problem there, but my willingness to leap to conclusions and apply genre conventions was at fault, too.
[Re. consent: Harper takes pictures of Quentin in just his boxers when he’s sleeping. She starts to masturbate to them, then stops (Quentin has a similar scene without the non-con photos–part of why I thought good people only had “nice” sex. Just finish yourself off, already! It doesn’t mean you don’t love him/her.) Eventually she feels guilty enough to delete them, but this episode was too hand-waved for my taste. That’s not cute and funny. It’s invasive.]
I feel that talking about the writing in The Sweetest Thing is a fraught issue, because there is a problem with people saying “all romances by/about people of color are badly written.” That is not my point. The romances by PoC I’ve read are all over the map in terms of writing quality, just like the romances by white writers.
I also think “bad writing” can mean “uses words in ways I’m not familiar with” and I hope that’s not my point, either. Some of my struggles with the writing style were me getting used to a vernacular that’s unfamiliar to me (for reasons of region and religion as much as race, I think). Like the “repast” after Pop’s funeral or the way Mello uses “spirit” to cover a multitude of things I’d call character, personality, soul, heart, and maybe even genitals. I don’t mind adjusting to those uses in the least. That’s part of the point of reading diverse books–reading about people who talk and think somewhat differently from me.
But there were also a lot of repeated words, sometimes used in ways that didn’t make sense. For instance, “chimed” and “intoned” are Mello’s favorite dialogue tags, as in “‘Thank you,’ Harper intoned. ‘You’ve been so nice.'” I don’t think “intoned” has any connotation that works there. Characters are frequently referred to as “the man” or “the woman.” This is not only repetitive but oddly distancing in a deep POV when the person referred to that way is someone the character knows well. Who thinks of her grandmother as “the woman”? These repetitions quickly became like fingernails on a chalkboard and are part of why I had to skim. I can’t imagine anyone who would not be bothered by this, which is why I’d call this kind of repetition bad writing.
Then there are the busy eyes. Harper rolled her eyes so many times that by Chapter 4 I added a note saying “Stop, Harper.” People gaze, stare, peek, wink, narrow their eyes. Once Harper “glanc[es] over to stare at Quentin.” I closed the book left with an impression of eyes in constant motion, and it was distracting as I read, too. I wonder if this is a common pitfall of romance, actually, because I’ve noticed some pretty mobile eyes in the book I’m reading now. In a genre about feelings, but where the rules say “show not tell” and readers object to too much internal musing, it can be pretty hard to express what the characters are feeling. Still, this book went way past my eye-rolling limits.
I think that an editor could have dealt with all those things and still kept the unique and culturally-specific elements of Mello’s and her characters’ voices. And I wanted to talk about this–although I wish the question of quality hadn’t come to a head for me with this particular book, given the fraughtness I mentioned above–because I think Romanceland has become really reluctant to make evaluative judgments beyond “it worked for me.” To say something is bad is seen as potentially “shaming” people who like it. I think there are criticisms that can come off as shaming–I wouldn’t call a book trash, for instance. And though my thoughts about quality are inspired in part by this post from Steve Donoghue, I wouldn’t condemn adults who read YA the way he does. I do, however, enjoy his strong opinions–agree or disagree, they make me think. And that’s what I want from criticism.
I don’t think people should be afraid to talk about issues of quality if they want to. Criticism loses some of its power if there aren’t people willing to assert strong opinions that go beyond purely personal taste into reasoned argument. Of course these judgments are more or less subjective and open to debate, because language itself, and even more ideas of “good writing,” is a social construct. There are no scientific, objective standards, so a claim about quality should be backed up with reasons, examples, and an explanation of criteria (which may differ from reader to reader).
I’d agree with Steve Donoghue that some readers are better than others, but I think the definition of “good reader” varies a lot according to context. It means one thing in the classroom, another when one is reading for pleasure. We probably all have our own definitions of what constitutes a “good reader.” And when we’re reading–and reviewing/being critics–just for the love of it, we should be whatever kind of readers and critics we want. I do think, though, that when Romanceland discussion in general is reluctant to engage with questions of prose quality (just as with any other substantive craft issue), the genre suffers. Why write better if no one cares?
We like to blame other people’s sexism for the low repute of genre romance, and there’s some truth to that. But we, both readers and writers (and certainly there are exceptions), often value emotional impact above other qualities of a book. We don’t talk about writing quality unless there are a lot of blatant editing errors (and sometimes not even then). We give awards to books with mediocre prose and put them on “best of the year” lists because people loved the story (even in places like Publisher’s Weekly, which put Mello’s Craving Temptation, the companion to this book, on its 2014 list). I think all of that is part of why the genre is looked down on. In most major publication best-of-the-year lists that include romance, as far as I can judge, the quality of the romances is not as high as the quality of books on other sublists overall. That doesn’t mean all romance is crap. There’s some really well-written romance. But we’re more likely to reward the mediocre as if it were great.
Maybe you think I’m totally wrong. Maybe I am. Maybe you don’t agree this is a problem. If readers are happy, who cares? But it’s a problem for me as a reader, so I want to talk about it. There was so much to like in The Sweetest Thing, but I could only get through it by skimming. A lot of the problems would be easy to fix–there aren’t fundamental grammar or sentence structure errors. And I can’t help wondering why no one did fix them. I suspect it’s partly because there’s not much payoff for better-written romance; the time isn’t worth it when no one is demanding better.
These ideas are kind of muddled, and maybe I should have waited to post them. But I couldn’t stop thinking about them, so here they are. I certainly welcome other opinions.