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.