I’m a cover whore. Oftentimes, it only takes a cute cover for me to buy a book. I know it’s a compulsion I should reign in, along with buying drinks because the can is adorable, but alas, I haven’t yet. When Something to Talk About popped up in my Goodreads feed, I was in love. My anticipation for the book was sky-high—finally a Sapphic book with a cover that made me swoon but that wasn’t about teenagers (nothing wrong with that, but I remained closeted through those years, and I suppose I’m still not elated at the prospect of thinking about those years of trying to fit in and be someone else). I counted the days. I got the book as soon as it was out. And I did not finish.
I can’t think of many books I haven’t finished lately. Usually, when I am annoyed with a character or a plotline, that actually propels me to read faster, maybe even skim some parts, so I can at least find out what happens to the characters I do care about, even if the resolution might be frustrating. And yet, I read half of Something to Talk About and cared about no one.
The story follows Jo, a powerful showrunner, and her assistant Emma who get photographed in the red carpet during a small, intimate moment, thus generating headlines about a possible relationship.
I am not a fan of fake relationship stories. As someone who still has to exist as a queer person in an intensely homophobic country, I find little to enjoy in two straight people pretending to be in love to benefit themselves, then falling in love for real. I can suspend disbelief for a lot of things, but not that. So I read the blurb carefully and a few reviews, and since it seemed like the relationship was more of an external assumption than a plot, I was in.
I wish I had stayed away. From the very first chapters, Something to Talk About feels a bit off. Jo, who we are told is a very reasonable boss who everyone loves and who would never act inappropriately, invites her assistant to an award show to be a buffer for her, pays for an expensive dress and tells her to meet her on the day of the event to get ready. There is never an attempt to brief said assistant on what the parameters of being a buffer are, like when she should step in or how she should step in, so Emma ends up stepping in while her boss is walking the red carpet and Jo grabs her to keep her from fleeing once she realizes that’s dumb. Jo seems to be hyperaware that it would be embarrassing to have her assistant pictured acting incompetent, so she tries to soothe her, and immediately forgets there are hundreds of cameras trained on her, even though she has been in showbussiness for some three decades and is far from stupid.
The book cuts to the aftermath, and we never discover what exactly being a buffer entailed for Emma except for her mistake, though we are told that Jo has never been as happy during an Award show as she was when Emma was by her side. We even have a whole scene of Jo being despondent at the GLAAD Awards because she’s bored and Emma isn’t there to keep her company, but we never read about what Emma’s company entails beyond that one red carpet joke and just have to take the book’s word that it is special.
That whole set-up was not great, but I decided to suspend disbelief this one time and just enjoy the book.
However, we spend a lot of the following chapters reading about rumors of their relationship and how Jo would never do something like date a subordinate, except we never see Jo interact much with any employee except the one she is trying to convince everyone she isn’t dating, a professional relationship that includes public lunches and health emergencies and a lot of touching being caught on camera, but never discussed on the page except for unending teasing.
There was a solid idea there with this book, but that idea never seems to materialize. It could have been fun to read about two people trying to navigate a world full of cameras while they try to keep their work relationship the same but not give more fuel to the rumors. Instead, they both seem downright inept at navigating the insinuation that Jo is having a very, very inappropriate relationship with her employee, despite the fact that neither is new at her job.
I suppose I could have forgiven that, even enjoyed that, if the book could just convince me they can’t help themselves, that their crush is too strong for them to behave more cautiously. I really wanted to be into those two, so I read through chapter after chapter of them working silently in the same room, because apparently Emma’s presence alone helped Jo through her writer’s blocks, and then Emma giving Jo advice on a script and telling her several times that she could write a film (Jo is a writer with several Emmys, but again, I made myself be fine with all this self-doubt).
Things didn’t exactly sizzle between them. Jo feels like hugging Emma in gratitude a couple of times, but that didn’t exactly have my pulse quickening. They barely speak and when they do, the dialogue is a bit cringe-inducing. It relies a lot on banter, but the jokes and flow seem off, and the exchanges reveal so little about the characters. Everyone in both characters’ lives insist on teasing them about their “girlfriend”, like all these forty-something professionals are stuck in Middle School, and a lot of the character work around Jo seems to revolve around her striking a relationship with Emma’s sister and being repeatedly teased for being soft, even though she projects aloofness to convince people she can be a boss. It’s 2020. It’s not very insightful or even amusing to have a pretend Ice Queen care about people.
Still, I persisted and somehow my insistence in liking this book got repaid by Milsner centering her conflict on Emma being told that her sister and Jo have been sitting next to each other at baseball games for several months now, because their children and nephew, respectively, play for the same team. Emma is invited to the games. In fact, it seems like a lot of work is put into persuading her to go off-page, but she doesn’t and then she decides to be mad that no one told her about this coincidence and flourishing friendship (that I am going to assume also happens off-page, since we see these people have one strained conversation before Emma’s sister becomes one of Jo’s best friends). And Emma cries about it. Honest to god cries about not being told two people she introduced just happened to run into each other in an children’s game and happened to bond, even though she had been gently coaxed into joining said games several times so they could surprise her with this dumb coincidence. And she decides she just can’t forgive them.
Not only that, she decides to put aside any pretense of being professional at work, acting sullen and refusing to look her boss in the eyes, because she thought that her doing more than her job description meant that they were friends, and now she feels betrayed. I think I have watched better plots in Gossip Girl. (Sidebar: why do older writers so often portrait millennials like we don’t know how jobs work? I’ll cop out to the stereotype of moving between jobs a lot, but I don’t know anyone my age who thinks their boss taking them to lunch to discuss where they would like to go next means we’re buddies. I reserve that designation for bosses who invite the team to their home for board games.)
I tried to get through the silliness, because goodness knows I have done so much of that with movies and TV shows, it shouldn’t be difficult. However, I found that I simply did not care about any of these people. I didn’t even know anything about it, except what I had been told second-hand by the author. I try not to be one of those readers for whom telling instead of showing is a harbinger of doom, especially after reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s amazing essay, and I love a story that feels a bit like an oral history. I can get on board with being told a lot about characters, when what I am being told is incisive and makes me invested. When what I read the characters doing either reinforces what I was told or dismantles it, revealing ironies and unreliable narratives. But I read half of this book and couldn’t parse who these two women were, why they liked each other, and what their connection was other than Jo feeling some supernatural kinship to her assistant’s mostly silent presence that allowed her to write better, which doesn’t make is less a connection than a way to use someone who works for you. So when everything threatened to fall apart over very flimsy misunderstandings, I cared so little that I closed the book on my Kindle and went to read something else.