It's Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake
It’s Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake reads like a cross between Bridget Jones’ Diary and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, but for all its flashes of charm, it lacks the freshness of both books. It’s about an ordinary teacher who, in the wake of a traumatic breakup and and a unexpected death, decides to take a six month sabbatical across Europe on what starts out as a vision quest for her one-that-got-away and ends with her trying to make up for lost time.
Staid thirty-six year old Noni Blake wakes up the morning after having good sex with a gorgeous blonde Viking of a firefighter and realizes she’s forgotten to put out the trash. So goes life for our substitute teacher anti-heroine, who just broke up a long-term relationship with her girlfriend Joan in the wake of a miscarriage and a long IVF crisis. After nine years, Chloe’s back on the market, and looking for a way to step out of her world of dependable behavior and responsibility and live life to the full once again. The firefighter seems as though she could be Chloe’s next flame, but she dies soon after their first encounter. A string of awkward one-night stands (including a rock-bottom encounter with a white supremacist which, yikes) and a meeting with Joan makes her realize that something’s missing from her life.
In Noni’s case, that thing seems to be Molly, her One that Got Away. Though she and Molly had a dysfunctional relationship, Noni has always carried a torch for the woman. When she finds her old lover, Noni instantly falls into bed with her – only to discover that Molly isn’t being truthful about her romantic status. She is devastated and breaks off things immediately.
In the wake of this last heartbreak, and encouraged by her best friend Lindell and his partner Graham, Noni decides to take six months off from her job and embark on a “pleasure quest” – a fulfillment of all of her desires, the people she wished she’d fucked, the places she wanted to see, the things she wanted to eat and the selfish moments she wishes she’d taken. This just isn’t about sexual pleasure but, as Erica Jong would say, the “zipless fuck.” Noni wants to know what makes her whole body happy, so she tries to learn to love herself. When she meets a burly tattoo artist in Edinburgh, she thinks she may have found The One. But when she learns about how complicated his life really is, will she be willing to settle into this love story?
The pleasant hedonism of It’s Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake is interrupted by its multiple love stories – Noni’s seemingly perfect fit with Beau, the easy rhythms of life with Joan, and the messy contrivances of Molly. The best of them is between Noni and herself, which is more of a love-hate affair than anything. Noni spends most of the book loathing herself, and that can be hard to take after a while; most of the conflict in the book is a rinse-repeat cycle between Noni’s guilt and her enjoyment of NSA sex and drugs. We’re to root for Noni’s emergence into her Scottish life, her joy with Beau, her realization that she only wants him, but Noni doesn’t pop to life as she ought to, and that keeps us from seeing her as more than anything but the millionth heroine experiencing selfish joy for the first time in her life.
Noni – plus sized, bisexual – at least provides representation. Her best friend, Lindell, is supportive but tends to lean toward the ‘gay friend of heroine supports everything she does even if it’s going to get her into an assload of trouble’ trope. And I genuinely liked Beau – even if he seemed too perfect – his son, and his friend Lil.
But something itched at me about the way the author portrays Noni’s bisexuality (and as a Fellow Bi, I feel comfortable saying something about it). All of Noni’s long-term relationships with women are negative or messy or depressing; with a man, Beau, it’s a perfect situation, he’s a perfect person, and Noni’s enemy is her self-hatred. If Beau had had more flaws I wouldn’t call out the novel about this, but the only other men in the novel are either underage, gay, or Nazis. The less said about Noni’s desire for a tall, blond Viking in light of that plot twist, the better.
What makes Noni Blake a C read instead of a D? Christian is a compelling author, her prose unique and fascinating. The representation and diversity in the book is refreshing and welcome, and Joan and Molly are realistically flawed burs under Noni’s saddle. But in spite of its efforts, It’s Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake remains frustratingly ordinary.