Whatever You Need
There’s a lot of either unsavory or ridiculous behavior bubbling under the surface of Whatever You Need’s seemingly romantic surface, and it ultimately drags the book down to the basement. In the closing chapter of her Haney family duo, Barbara Longley gives us the story of a shy amateur comic book artist and a brittle single mom who fall in love thanks to a fire which suffers from robotic prose and predictable plotting.
Electrician Wyatt Haney is a bit of a wallflower. Hiding in his hoodie even when it’s super hot out due to some scarring and his natural shyness, he spends his spare time drawing comic books. He subliminates his fantasies about his widowed upstairs neighbor Kayla Malone by making her the star of his universe, but is too shy to approach her in the real world. He spends his afternoons longing to speak to her and lives for every Saturday, when he watches her and her son leave the building and head out to do the laundry. Fortunately, when fire strikes Kayla’s apartment, he’s not too shy to get his other neighbors out of the house, nor is he too shy to rouse the fire department. The fire is the catalyst that brings Wyatt closer to her, and when his family’s construction company wins the bid to bring the building up to scratch, they’re put in close contact. But can he ever break away from his quiet, retiring façade to truly blossom?
Kayla Malone – busy as heck with her five year old son Brady in tow – has no time for foolishness and definitely no time for romance. The fire in her apartment is just one more bit of bad luck in an unlucky streak that’s been dogging her; she lost Brady’s father to the war in Afghanistan, is recently unemployed and six months from qualifying to become a dental hygienist, so money is tight. Physically attracted to Wyatt, she’s nonetheless highly suspicious of his friendliness, and his shyness often throws up barriers between them. When she tells Wyatt she just wants to be friends, something will have to give to keep theirchance of romance alive.
There’s a bit of a divide between the down-home, workaday sweetness of the central romance and the extremely strange quirkiness that pulls the story apart. When we first meet Wyatt, he’s drawing a comic strip in which a character is based on Kayla, which is both cute and just the tiniest tad bit creepy, as he’s only seen her from a distance. When she serves as the inspiration for the comic’s heroine, the hero is basically a gary-stu version of himself – and in full Informed Attribute mode, he manages to have comic book publishers fighting over his work by the end of the novel! He actually says things like “curse this wretched shyness!” This is the sort of behavior that one associates with Bad Ronald, not a contemporary romantic hero. That this shyness conveniently comes and goes whenever there’s a chance for him to show some heroism goes without saying. This is meant to make a huge parallel between his love of comic books and their super-powered heroes with secret identities, but that falls flat. His best qualities – the bits where he’s good and gentle and talks to Kayla’s son with respect – tend to get buried by this cardboard weirdness in his character.).
Conveniently, Kayla is attracted to his height and masculine presence; six pages into the story and she’s having butterflies as he ogles her backside. Then two paragraphs later she’s highly suspicious of Wyatt’s motives. She weaves between these emotions whenever the narrative needs her to, matching Wyatt’s hot and cold shyness. This is annoyingly inconsistent and feels like as much of a cartoon as the comic books Brady reads. Her good qualities tend to be buried beneath her immaturity with a point of view that feels shallow especially whenever she gets distracted by Wyatt’s butt or eyes. Naturally her dead husband was an evil adulterer who hated his son, an easy way to make Wyatt look like a saint via comparison.
The romance builds fairly organically, but both characters feel too immature to make the relationship seem properly hefty, and it’s subject to incredibly dumb complications like Kayla assuming Wyatt is in love with his brother’s fiancée. When Kayla pushes Wyatt away and asks him to just be her friend, the narrative beats her up until she gnashes her teeth and makes a move on him. How dare she want to move slowly after having a terrible marriage and being in an awkward place financially?! After all, Wyatt is such a nice guy who wasn’t at all creepily molding her into the manic pixie dream girl of his fantasies from afar.
The supporting characters are just okay. Mariah, a single mom friend of Kayla’s, is your traditional Horny Best Friend stereotype, who purrs and grins and is generally annoying. Brady reads much more like a three year old than a five year old, spouting cute malapropisms. Wyatt’s relatives are salt of the earth and filled with sage humor and Kayla’s parents are as well meaning as her in-laws are accusatory (though they eventually grovel to her). There are the neighbors who live at the building who become part of an implausible plot to save the it (hint: people who live in rundown buildings built at the turn of the century with negligent landlords generally don’t have a hundred thousand dollars on hand to buy into co-ops, and the last-minute twist involving a hippie neighbor’s secret connection and profession seems like a deus ex machina). The book’s multiple conflicts actually feel pretty weak, and the threats that loom honestly don’t feel well, threatening enough.
The quality of the writing is middling, and characters often sound artificial and robotic. When Kayla spies Wyatt’s work and immediately says “Your work reminds me of the Adventure Comics produced in the early 1930s and the 1940s,” she sounds like a Wikipedia article instead of a human being. No one talks like that in real life. They also don’t call St. Paul and Minneapolis ‘The Twin Cities’ like a chipper tourism robot. It adds to the strange sense of artificiality that permeates the whole novel.
Whatever you Need is a definite step up from Sam’s story in What You Do to Me, but while I adore shy hero romances, the underlying layer of creepiness in this one was just too much for me to stomach.