Dance Away With Me
Dance Away with Me is Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ long awaited new novel. Set in the backcountry of Tennessee, it’s a story about grief, love and discovering home.
When her young, healthy husband Travis contracts and dies of pneumococcal pneumonia, nurse midwife Tess Hartsong takes off for Runaway Mountain. Her plan is to hide in the hills until she finds herself again. Or, more likely, until she runs out of money and has to go find a job.
Ian North the Fourth just wants to find himself again. A famous and extremely successful street/graffiti artist, his work has always been driven by his fury. But his abusive father is dead and Ian’s rage – and with it his inspiration – has dried up. Hoping time away from fans, agents and other hangers-on will help him rediscover his muse, he heads to an isolated (but luxurious) rustic cabin. But when his neighbor breaks the soothing tranquility of his Tennessee mountain retreat by blaring music at all hours of the day and night he rediscovers his misplaced ire and marches down the hill to give them a piece of his mind.
Tess has been dancing out her feelings by stomping, writhing, gyrating and whirling in just her underwear and an old tank top, pushing her body to release the negative energy that courses through her veins. The last thing Tess expects is for a wild mountain man to come out of nowhere to issue a noise complaint. And for him to be followed by a fairy-tale sprite who is extremely pregnant. Tess learns that her new neighbors are Bianca and Ian, they recently arrived from New York and they are the most mismatched pair she has ever seen. The effervescent, free spirited Bianca is a complete contrast to the grumpy, dour Ian.
Bianca plans to head back to the city when it is closer to her due date but right now she is bored and eager to make a new friend. While Tess wants nothing to do with the charming beauty, the woman’s determination to become besties overcomes Tess’ hesitation. This one relationship inspires an avalanche of change. Such as Tess taking a job at a coffee shop/convenience store and – galvanized by her surly, pregnant teen coworker – dispensing condoms and sex ed alongside donuts and lattes. Before she quite knows what is happening, Tess is taking reluctant part in a community that is suspicious of outsiders and full of crabby, irascible denizens who are more generous with their verbal snark than they are with their tips.
Just as she is getting used to this new normal, events work to once more upend Tess’ life. Reluctantly forced to serve as full time caregiver to a baby named Wren, she finds herself surprised that her strongest ally in this latest struggle is none other than the grumpy Ian.
If you’ve ever read a Phillips’ book, you will recognize the formula of gruff, larger-than-life hero going through personal crisis meeting a heroine going through a journey of self-discovery, and the two finding what they were looking for by falling in love. Add to that quirky secondary characters also having major life moments and you have an SEP novel.
The fact that everything about this book is familiar will not make it less enjoyable to the author’s legions of fans. Many will pick up Dance Away with Me looking for Phillips’ signature strong, feisty, eccentric heroine and will be delighted to find that Tess is exactly what they are expecting. Likewise they will be thrilled by how much Ian is the classic SEP hero; good-hearted, generous, wealthy, strong – and a wee bit irritable. Even the road taken to their HEA is the well-trod path whereby our heroine up-ends an entire community – and consequently the hero’s whole life – as she gently forces her particular world view on those around her. Our heroine’s goodness (of course) brings out the goodness of even her adversaries, who were never really evil but had just lost their way a bit.
There one SEP hallmark missing from this book, though – the humor. The beginning is dark, with Tess’ grieving and Ian’s working through his issues, and the early part of the tale culminating in a tragic event tangling everything up. The tone never really picks up from there – it definitely tries, with droll or zany moments occurring periodically in the second half but the laugh out loud off-kilter bits that tend to be part of this writer’s brand aren’t here.
In fairness, my inability to find the comedy in the tale might have been due to my reaction to certain aspects of the plot. I didn’t like that Tess felt entitled to baby Wren simply because she had grown attached to her and been her caregiver for several weeks (not years or even months but weeks.) I hated the hoops the author went through to dismiss the claims others might have had to the child. I was ticked off that Ian went along with one of her crazy, immoral schemes so she could keep the infant. I also felt like so much of Ian and Tess’ love story revolved around Wren that I was reading the tale of two people trying to ‘make it work’ for the sake of a child. The author definitely tries to compensate for that with the ending, but tacking on a grand gesture, ‘I’ve discovered why I love you’ moment in the last pages doesn’t make a romance. The easy dismissal of laws that Tess doesn’t agree with didn’t sit at all well with me, either.
This book also contained two of my very peeviest pet peeves. Number one is the trope of ‘one true love’, where the former spouse just wasn’t quite as perfect as the present love is. Here we are asked to simultaneously accept that Tess was totally devastated by her husband’s death and also that he wasn’t perfect for her like Ian is. I won’t get into spoiler territory by listing details but I found it unnecessary for Tess to suddenly remember all the things she didn’t like about Travis. Number two was the newborn as an aphrodisiac trope. Given how many relationships break up because of the stress of having a family, this is a fantasy I just can’t enjoy. In this case, all the attendant weird little quirks made it especially unbelievable.
I really struggled with grading Dance Away with Me. SEP is a consummate wordsmith and her excellent prose made this book an easy read. When compared to the author’s impressive and beloved previous body of work, this could be considered to be exactly what fans such as myself are looking for. But the missing humor made the odd unreality of the plot seem kooky rather than whimsical. It was still enjoyable but only if you are completely willing to suspend your disbelief and moral judgment and just go along with the story. If you can do that (and let’s face it, most SEP fans have been doing that for years!) I would give this a qualified recommendation to fans and to folks who enjoy small town Southern romance.
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I've been an avid reader since 2nd grade and discovered romance when my cousin lent me Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe in 7th grade. I currently read approximately 150 books a year, comprised of a mix of Young Adult, romance, mystery, women's fiction, and science fiction/fantasy.
|Review Date:||June 8, 2020|
|Book Type:||Contemporary Romance|
|Review Tags:||artist | Tennessee|
I am a huge fan of SEP, but this book just didn’t work for me. As Maggie notes, Tess’s refusal to relinquish the baby she cared for, but had no legal right to, ruined the book for me. That Ian went along with this craziness made Dance Away With Me a DNF for me. I was so looking forward to this book, but it was a huge disappointment.
I could almost believe Tess’s selfishness in regards to the baby but Ian going along with the crazy was a lot to take.
Gosh, I really disliked this book, which is a first for me when it comes to SEP. I found parts of it downright offensive — Tess’s feeling entitled to a child that isn’t hers just because she thinks she’d make a better mother, for example, as well as Tess’s feeling entitled to “educate” other people’s minor children on sex because she felt the parents weren’t telling them what she felt they should tell them. This speaks to a shocking lack of understanding of basic human rights, IMO, and it’s pretty appalling stuff to find in a contemporary romance.
Overall, I thought it was a dour, grim book.
I couldn’t stand Tess. Her whole this baby is mine thing was, at best preposterous, and, at worst, absurdly entitled.
I don’t know that I found it grim but I will add that as LIeselotte pointed out above, this author often has questionable morality in her books. Both Nobody’s Baby but Mine and This Heart of Mine contained heroines who pushed (and crossed??) the boundaries of decency when going after what they wanted (a baby, a particular partner). In Heroes Are My Weakness I was completely appalled by the lengths the secondary characters went through to achieve a particular end. So Ms.Phillips often crosses boundaries that in real life would mean at the very least a court case, and in some cases, prison time – and rightly so.
I haven’t read this book yet but I think what you say is 100% true on past heroines of her books. Many have had an incredible sense of entitlement and it seems in this book SEP has taken it further. I think a lot of authors have softened over the years from more extreme or socially frowned behavior in their books, perhaps from self examination or the changing times, but it seems SEP has not.
You are totally right on the entitlement. It’s as if her heroines don’t even see that other people might have differing opinions, wants or needs. If the heroine wants it, property rights or any other rights go out the window.
SEP does sometimes have a whimsical touch that smooths over otherwise problematic issues with her writing. She has always been a hit or miss author for me, and to be honest, more miss. This books doesn’t sound as if the whimsy is available, and without it, I don’t find her books appealing. I think I’m harder on SEP now though than I was in the past. I think I’ve just moved on as there are so many good contemporary authors writing today doing whimsy, humor, snark, and romance simultaneously so well.
This was a total nostalgia read for me. As you say, they are many authors today doing outstanding work with whimsy, humor, snark, and romance. Jasmine Guillory is my current fave — but SEP held that position for a long time and I still love some of her older works. Her newer stuff never seems to hit above a B for me, though.
There are a few authors that I feel this way about. I can’t decide if they just did their best work earlier or it’s partly nostalgia with me.
chrisreader: I think it’s also that as we get older, no matter how comforting we find an author’s style, eventually the very predictability that we had previously found so comforting becomes tiresome instead. As I’ve gotten older, I find I can no longer binge-read even really good writers. In my younger days, when I found a writer who clicked with me, I could read their entire backlist, one right after the other, like eating a jar of peanuts, and never get bored. Now I find I have to space out books by the same writer (even books in a duet or trilogy) by reading another book by a different author in between, or I get too picky about the style.
/And stay off my lawn!
Me too. My series bingeing days are over. Oddly, I love bingeing on TV more than ever.
Lol. That’s very true. I recently read Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie for the first time and it was a revelation. I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed more over a book. Every sentence was just perfection. So then of course I went and glommed all the Crusie books I could find one after another.
There were some hits and misses. Some were quite good, but I immediately started picking up “patterns” and that some things seemed like a rehash. Nothing was quite as good as “Bet Me” (but I also think it’s her best work).
I also believe it’s also the reason why new actors have a good shot at picking up an Oscar for a really great stand out first role. You don’t know their quirks yet so everything is fresh and impressive.
I also think that SEP’s views and issues are dated.
I loved Nobody’s Baby but Mine when it first came out, and could relate to a woman just wanting a baby, then,not realizing the brutality to the man. On reread years later, it became horrific to me, the woman a predator who was too intelligent and too adult to behave like that, and it ruined the book for me.
I will reread Breathing Room and see if I can enjoy that, and wait whether I want to pick this one up, at all.
Thank you Maggie, really good review helping me decide.
You’re welcome. I’d be interested to read what you think of Breathing Room as that was one I really struggled with.
I started and find the heroine quite difficult to like, like last time I read it. She is so righteous. So I may skim, or stop. If I get through it, I will let you know.
Breathing Room is one of my least favorite SEPs. I recall it being so meh. It’s one of the few of hers that I’ve never re-read.
Agree! SEP’s writing doesn’t sit well with me today. Lots of her views on gender behavior is tone deaf to our current culture. Also, I never felt enamored with Nobody’s Baby but Mine, as that is a book with an incredulous plot for a contemporary romance right now.
Cavewoman me still enjoys early SEP. I feel so bad I’m not evolved.
I still enjoy classic SEP, too. I’m just very aware that they have problematic plot points. . . .
One person’s problematic plot is another’s catnip, I guess.
I’m reading The Footman and there’s a scene in it where the heroine wakes up and the hero is “feasting” on her. I’m sure there are those who would call this problematic because the scene lacks consent in the way our current culture defines it. And I’m sure there are those who would find the scene sexy and see his actions favorably.
It’s interesting to me that the problematic leads in SEP’s work are almost always women–Molly, Jane, and Tess. As I’ve said elsewhere, given that the heroes in SEP’s books always forgive and empathize with the heroines, I’m able to do so too.
Different strokes, as my mom says!
The Footman business sounds like something you find more in erotica than straight historical romance these days. I’ve been curious to read it. Even before the review, the author’s name alone caught my eye. It sounds like a mash up of old school revenge-y tropes which I haven’t seen in a while. (The setup reminds me of a Kleypas novel).
I probably will end up reading this SEP from the library (and not buying it) just to check it out. Some days, odd or controversial is more enticing than blah or same old same old, even if it’s just something that generates some conversation or discussion.
I have my issues with SEP so if the humor is missing from this one I would say it’s a pass for me as it’s her humor that I find redeeming in her books. The ones that are played for straight drama are usually just too overwrought and over the top for me.
Thank you for the very, very in depth review! I think you did a great job of letting the reader know what they are delving into if they should decide to pick it up. Some people who might think it’s a big romp will thank you in advance!
You’re welcome! Glad I gave you enough info to help guide your choice!
I love SEP, but the lack of humor, which is something I’ve always adored, makes this less than appealing. Perhaps if I see it on the library shelf someday.
I think the library is a great idea! I did add a caveat that I might not have seen the humor because of some of the issues I had with the story elements. :-) so maybe you will find it funnier.
I’m yikesing at the notion of the heroine thinking of her recently, tragically dead husband and going “oh well, he was less than perfect – off with these widows weeds and my panties!” Ugh. Passing!
I’ve read other contemporary romances featuring women dancing in their underwear as a panacea for all types of life problems, and every time I encounter this (new trope?), I feel bewildered. Is a thing women do?
It mainly seems to be a thing women in romcoms do!
Seemed a bit odd to me too; glad to know I’m not alone!
In fairness, some time had passed. It just always irks me when the heroine meets a new guy and suddenly remembers the old one had flaws. Especially when the new guy begins their relationship by yelling at her.
Her husband has been dead for two years, but, yeah, if her grief is still that deep and that fresh two years later, it strains credibility that all of a sudden, he wasn’t really that awesome after all.
newborn as aphrodisiac
That’s so outside the realm of my experience that it cracks me up.
I know so many couples that have said that their first newborn is what almost broke up their relationship due to the stresses that accompany a baby- along with lack of sleep, communication issues, you name it. It seems to be something that also brings to light the difference in male vs female brain and how they react to those things.
What is the opposite of an aphrodisiac? Is there an antonym? Because like you, that is what they would call it. And in all the cases I am referencing the babies were all planned and longed for so it was not a situation where it was an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy.
Yep. I think you can only write this kind of drivel when your kids are grown, have left home and are living their own lives. At that time, you may have flashes of “the baby blues” when you long for the (non-existent) good old days when they were babies. Don’t get me wrong – I have those flashes too but my brain quickly kicks in and reminds me that it enjoys sleeping, bathing, eating food while it’s still hot, and quiet time with a good book so the feeling promptly flees.
In this case, the sexed up woman didn’t actually give birth, right? She has a baby but didn’t have the baby. Am I remembering that correctly?
You are remembering correctly. She didn’t have the baby.
Every person I know with a newborn is either too tired to see straight or has to deal with the unpalatable physical realities of post-delivery life (hello episiotomy). NOPE, authors!
In fairness, Tess had the advantage of not having to give birth to the baby, so no episiotomy, aching breasts, bloated uterus/abdomen etc. But that still leaves you with a newborn who eats up your whole day and night. :-)
That’s what I thought (see above comment.) But the whole no sleep thing is such a mood killer not to mention always being “on call” in case the baby needs to be fed, rocked, changed, whatever.
Oh yeah – like she can do it, but that doesn’t excuse the tired from Crying Baby. YEP.
Thanks for the laugh! A couple of weeks ago, I saw a story about how people were planning post-quarantine “orgies” to make up for their current “epic dry spell.” To which I could only roll my eyes and say, anyone who thinks a few weeks is an “epic dry spell” has clearly never been nine months pregnant or had a newborn baby in the house!
There is no greater gift in my life than my four kids (and my spouse) and I often wish I’d had a couple more! AND I so disliked the first months. For me, it was just something you got through. I’m always jealous of those who adore itty bitty babies. Give me a two year old any day!
I firmly believe you only adore them it they are not yours:
You come, you cuddle them, you even get slobber all over you and it is sweet, but then you go home to your regular life…
Grandmother/ Auntie approach…
A very thoughtful and thorough analysis, Maggie. Not sure this one is for me. I have enjoyed some but by no means all of her books. Thank you.