Courtney Milan has admirably taken up the mantle not just for plucky, smart heroines, but for explicitly academic ones. Complex theory as foreplay and technical jargon as sweet nothings are part of her repertoire. It’s these details, as well as Milan’s own formidable educational achievements, that have me recommending her as gateway romance for women who think themselves above romance. (Former member of that camp here.) In addition to her superlative characterization, she also rarely stumbles on the actual romance, and when she does, often the strength of the characters themselves still make the book a net positive reading experience. If a less-than-perfect romance, it’s still great historical fiction.
So I am fairly disappointed that Talk Sweetly to Me faltered both, for me, in the romance and in the individual characterization. Perhaps because it was a novella, but these characters felt more roughly sketched than others. Rose Sweetly is a “computer”, working out the very complex mathematics of astronomical problems — distance between stars, the trajectory of a comet, etc. She’s also of African descent. She’s neighbors with Stephen Shaughnessy, with whom we were introduced in the prior book in the Brothers Sinister series, The Suffragette Scandal. Stephen writes a column for that protagonist’s newspaper, The Women’s Free Press, called “Ask a Man.” A tongue-in-cheek satire, the column has made Stephen very popular among the ladies. He and Rose both nurse crushes on each other, but Rose is worried about his promiscuous image, knowing that any association with him will tarnish her reputation, and doubly so because of her race. Stephen concocts a scheme to spend more time with her, regularly under supervision, so as to avoid any presumption of impropriety, and he wants to use the opportunity to convince Rose that he is interested in her, all of her, and wants more than to just seduce her.
Now, I liked Rose, and I liked Stephen, but something about their chemistry seemed forced. Stephen is plenty charming, and sincere when necessary, but he seemed a little too smooth with Rose. In any measurable way, but especially in mathematics, where Rose is astonishingly gifted, she is probably Stephen’s intellectual superior; even so, I came away with the sense that she was helpless against his pursuit, and like her eventual seduction was a resigned inevitability. And, I mean, this is a romance, so of course it’s inevitable. But whereas in many romances, and particularly in Milan’s stronger ones, both characters challenge each other (and not just in turning away sexual advances), the main challenge Rose seems to present is to Stephen’s self-esteem. To wit: Rose’s main obstacles are the very real threats of ruination, racism, and professional disempowerment, and his main obstacle is that he frets over whether he is “serious” enough for Rose. This can probably be a crushing insecurity for anyone pursuing someone so brilliant, but it read as a little bit of a whinge when Rose so clearly already likes him, values what he contributes to their relationship, and is a hair away from sleeping with him anyway.
It’s unfortunate that this coda followed basically the best romance ever, but it still takes nothing away from my general reverence for Courtney Milan and her subversive approach to the genre. I just won’t be recommending this particular volume. It’s 2.5 stars rounded up to three based on a hat-tip toward the ever-loved (by me) scientist heroine.