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Saturday, January 18, 2014

'You Don't Have To Say You Love Me' by Sarra Manning

From the BLURB:

Sweet, bookish Neve Slater always plays by the rules. And the number one rule is that good-natured fat girls like her don’t get guys like gorgeous, handsome William, heir to Neve’s heart since university. But William’s been in LA for three years, and Neve’s been slimming down and re-inventing herself so that when he returns, he’ll fall head over heels in love with the new, improved her.

So she’s not that interested in other men. Until her sister Celia points out that if Neve wants William to think she’s an experienced love-goddess and not the fumbling, awkward girl he left behind, then she’d better get some, well, experience.

What Neve needs is someone to show her the ropes, someone like Celia’s colleague Max. Wicked, shallow, sexy Max. And since he’s such a man-slut, and so not Neve’s
type, she certainly won’t fall for him. Because William is the man for her… right?

Somewhere between losing weight and losing her inhibitions, Neve’s lost her heart – but to who?

Neve Slater has a mission and life-plan. She’s on her way to becoming her fittest, healthiest self after a wake-up call about her obesity pushed her into hiring a personal trainer two years ago and getting her weight under control. And even though she’s dropped dress sizes and exercises every day, she’s still not her ideal size-10 self. She needs to get down to the tiny 1-0 in order to impress her old college crush, William, when he gets back from three years teaching abroad in California (where, no doubt, all the women he’s been with are size-0). Because William is Neve’s one-true-love, and mostly likely the man she’ll marry.

There’s just one problem that can’t be fixed with the treadmill and celery sticks – something Neve’s little sister, Celia, has pointed out to her on many occasions. Neve doesn’t actually have much experience in the men department, and is in fact a 25-year-old virgin. She won’t win William’s heart if she’s woefully inexperienced, so Celia is helping her to try out some light-flirting on the gentlemen of London.

One man who is certainly no gentleman (more ‘cad’) is Celia’s colleague and major editor at the magazine where she works – Max. Max is a ladies’ man through and through, and where Neve is concerned he’s the out-of-bounds big leagues and certainly not the right person to tentatively attempt her flirting with. Except one night at a post-Christmas party for magazine ‘Skirt’ Neve and Max have a moment. Granted, a moment that wavers between disastrous and outrageous, but a moment nonetheless;

He was still trying to drum up business as Neve kissed Celia on the cheek, and she was just about to turn round and head off to the tube when she felt a hand land squarely on her bottom. ‘Or what about you? You’ve got plenty of cushion for the pushing. I like that in a woman.’

Then Neve has an idea – what if Max was to be her ‘pancake boyfriend’ in the months before William’s return? ‘Pancake’ after the first pancake in the batch that’s inevitably botched and thrown away. Max is clearly emotional unavailable and if Neve is fine with him seeking his carnal pleasures elsewhere (they’ll be purely platonic, no sex) then this could be the best way for Neve to practice having a boyfriend, and for Max to attempt to make a real human connection with someone (without sleeping with them). It’s a match made in a batch!

‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’ was the 2011 novel from Sarra Manning.

I've been meaning to read Sarra Manning for the longest time. She’s such a popular British YA author, with a fairly fairytale writing background – she was writer for (now defunct) teen mag J17 and has previously written for ELLE, The Guardian, ES Magazine, Seventeen, Details and Heat. No wonder her bio touts her as a “teen queen extraordinaire.” And of all her books ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’ is undoubtedly the one that’s come most highly recommended to me. So, I finally got round to reading it and NOW I GET IT. She’s amazing, and I need to read more Manning, pronto.

This book is probably one of the best examples of ‘New Adult’ I've encountered thus far (though I’m sure it wasn’t marketed as such). Neve is twenty-five, fitting her comfortably into that somewhat awkward grey-area age-group of New Adult readers, but more importantly she’s a character who’s plagued by her teenage past and finds it’s still defining her life and fears.

Neve was tormented for her weight throughout high school – it sent her into a spiral where she’d be teased for being “fat” and then eat to numb the pain of the bullying. Now in her 20s, Neve is still plagued by the fat-shaming of her childhood since her older brother married her high school tormentor – who now lives in the flat above hers and takes every opportunity she can to dredge up Neve’s biggest pressure-point insecurities.

Even now, when Neve has shrunk down to a size 14-16, she’s still insecure and constantly paranoid about her “problem areas”. Not to mention she’s fixated on getting down to the perfect size-10 to really impress William (whom she’s been corresponding with via letters and phone-calls, hell-bent on not letting him see her transformation until he returns to London to be awed in person).

The focus on Neve’s body insecurities is a big part of the book, and definitely a wound that Manning keeps prying open. But she does it in such a way as to let readers know that Neve’s perception of herself is distorted – granting us a wider look at society’s dictates on ‘perfection’ and ‘beauty’ versus personal happiness and health. For this reason, all that uncomfortable body-shaming and Neve’s berating works without being insensitive or needlessly cruel. I really tip my hat to Manning for this; other authors could have just let Neve have a Cinderella-esque story where she loses weight and gets the fabulous life as a bonus prize. But Manning actually prises this misconception open bit-by-bit throughout the story, and actually turns Neve’s body-image into a journey in itself.

The other reason I loved this book was Max. Hands-down, one of the best “bad boys” I've ever read. A smarmy editor at equally smarmy-sounding ‘Skirt’ magazine, he was set-up in a very conventional way, but by the end of the book became a very unconventional hero. 

In the glow of the streetlamps and the glare of neon signs, Neve could see that his hair wasn’t dirty but a glossy dark brown, and his skin had an olive tinge that suggested he’d tan at the first sight of the sun. Which wasn’t important right then. It didn’t matter how pretty he was when he had such an ugly soul.

Where Neve’s issues were very psychological and body-based, Max has emotional wounds that run deep. But I was glad that Manning didn’t write him as a through-and-through jerk – she lets Neve’s sister-in-law be the fat-shaming bully (with her own issues), not Max. Max is always appreciative of Neve’s body, as a lover of the female form (in all shapes and sizes). I loved this. Yes, he’s a ‘bad-boy’ in that he’s a real Lothario and plays on his good looks to be God’s gift to women, but he’s not cruel. He’s the epitome of charming, and I adored him.

Sarra Manning also has a wicked sense of humour. From the obligatory spanx-related jokes, to a WAGs mega wedding party and Neve’s pre-coitus nerves, Manning is a laugh-riot;

There was a part of Neve that was slowly liquefying on her Cath Kidston duvet cover even though she felt as if she should be running around the room, arms and legs flailing wildly as she emitted high-pitched shrieks of terror. 

I loved this book, absolutely. True, towards the end it got a bit waffling and lost in the ‘will-they-or-won’t-they?’ portion of the story, but this was a thoroughly enjoyable read that took me one afternoon to finish. I’ll definitely be reading more Manning.


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