Some of the most fun I’ve had reading romances the last few years has come from making my way through Beverly Sommers’s backlist. I haven’t liked all her books, and there’s only one I’d call a true keeper (Losing It), but her quirky characters, unconventional love stories, and beguiling voice always make for an interesting read. Getting Even is one such distinctive tale. More than just a romance, it combines elements of Women’s Fiction and Chick Lit, with the woman-abandoned-by-her-cheating-husband aspect common to the former and the single-woman-in-the-city premise and snappy tone of the latter. As is sometimes the case with both genres, the heroine has some annoying moments, yet I loved just about everything else about this fresh, atypical tale.
The story is narrated in first-person by its heroine. Movie critic Ellie Thomas reviews documentaries and horror films for a small New York newspaper. One afternoon a screening is canceled due to a broken projector, and Ellie arrives home early to find her husband Max running around their apartment naked with her best friend. It seems they’ve been having an affair for months. Max informs her they could probably use some time apart (gee, no kidding), and since the lease is in his name, he asks her to be out of the apartment ASAP. In the middle of a broiling New York summer, Ellie is forced to rent a tiny room with no air conditioning and a shared bath, which is all she can afford.
All this upheaval takes its toll on her, and Ellie finds herself unable to sleep, except at movie screenings, where she’s out like a light before the credits are finished rolling. This is a problem for someone who’s supposed to be reviewing these movies, so Ellie just starts making up her reviews of these movies she hasn’t seen. (And to think some people complain about how we review around here.) Now, maybe I’m just taking this as a professional affront, but I thought this was a pretty lousy thing to do, and the fact that Ellie has no qualms about it was aggravating.
Her reviewing troubles make for a rocky introduction to the hero, Sam Wiley. An explorer and documentary filmmaker who works primarily in the Amazon, Sam made one of the movies Ellie panned after sleeping through it, not knowing that the man himself was sitting next to her in the screening room. Sam is generally a good guy, though, and when he learns of her personal troubles, he’s sympathetic. Eventually they begin to date, but Ellie is just figuring out what she wants in life and Sam will be heading back to the Amazon sooner rather than later, leaving any possible future between them up in the air.
This is essentially a character-driven story without an overarching plotline, which is one reason it feels more true to life than the usual series romance. Ellie’s life is messy and complicated with a great deal going on in it, like most people’s, and the story follows the various events that mark this eventful summer. She copes with her growing dissatisfaction with her job and her life. She reconnects with the friends she lost touch with during her marriage and shares a beach house at the Jersey shore with them. She helps one friend put on a one-woman show. Ellie is surrounded by writers and filmmakers, which I found interesting and really liked. As is usually the case, Sommers’s portrayal of the New York setting feels authentic, certainly far more than most romances.
While her attitude toward her reviews was irriting, I actually did like Ellie, who’s another of Sommers’s spirited heroines. She has a strong personality and a very distinct point of view, so the first-person narrative really pays off. Her reaction to her husband’s infidelity is believable and she doesn’t bounce back right away. She spends much of the early stages of the book thinking of ways to take revenge on Max and his mistress (hence the title), plotting elaborate scenarios to make herself feel better, and slowly gets over her heartbreak. And of course, she dates Sam.
This is an appealing love story between two very interesting people. Sam’s documentaries focus on insects, using cockroaches and ants to comment on and satirize human society, which was very cool. The man himself is a nice guy, but not in a boring way. I love that he makes her laugh, and when the two of them run into her husband, Sam purposely gets the man’s name wrong to bug him. They have a genuine, low-key rapport that the best of the author’s characters exhibit, the kind where the people involved seem to fit together perfectly. Sommers writes fast-paced dialogue and there are some nicely funny moments, like Sam’s solution to Ellie’s problem of spilling ice cream all over herself.
It’s kind of sad that a series romance from 1989 feels more contemporary than most of today’s Harlequins, even those published in the supposedly ultra-hip Blaze line, but that’s the case here. So many series books have that old-fashioned feel that not even a few pop culture references can make seem truly contemporary. While there are indications that this story isn’t taking place in 2006 (for one thing, it’s hard to imagine a romance heroine today smoking like Ellie does), Sommers’s sensibility is so youthful and modern that the story feels remarkably fresh. It helps that some of the references have actually held up well, like when Ellie and Sam go to a U2 concert.
Not everything works. Each of the chapters begins with an excerpt from one of Ellie’s reviews, using lame versions of celebrity names like Oprah Wimpy and Meryl Sleepover, none of which I found as clever as I suspected they were supposed to be. But the offbeat sensibilities, distinctive personalities, and modern love story make for a most enjoyable read. I’ve read Getting Even three times now, and each time I like it more, so much so that even Ellie’s annoying reviewing technique bothers me less than it once did. I’m rationing the last few Sommers books I have left to read, but with cool, quirky and funny reads like this, Losing It, Of Cats and Kings, and others on hand, I’ll have plenty of satisfying reading to return to again and again.