Tell Me Why
Stella Cameron’s latest novel Tell Me Why is the drawn-out story of two characters about whom we’re told a great deal without ever feeling like we actually know them. The story could be interesting with compelling characters, but lacking those, it felt distinctly blah.
Carolee Burns is a world famous jazz pianist who seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth after her disastrous and very public divorce. Her ex-husband was an aspiring artist who gained custody of their daughter by making it seem as if Carolee were neglecting them both in favor of her career. When the story opens, she is sneaking around the building where her 12-year-old daughter Faith has dance lessons, hoping for a forbidden peek. She has already been through the divorce, and reflects on how she meekly bowed to her husband’s accusations, and gave up Faith, whom she swears is the only thing important to her. From the beginning she comes across as very passive, and this hardly changes throughout the story. When she finally makes up her mind to fight a custody battle for Faith, the reader is left wondering what took her so long, and why she didn’t bother the first time around.
Max Wolfe is a former pro football player, injured in a car accident several years before. We’re told he now mentors football players at a nearby high school, but we never see him do anything football related throughout the entirety of the book. It seems extremely likely that the author is using the supposed angst he carries over this great loss as a sort of insta-characterization, a shortcut to actually making him a real flesh and blood person. Max now runs a software company (a successful one, naturally), seemingly in his spare time, since for the majority of the book he seems to have no need to ever be at work. He leads a lonely existence, so he’s drawn to Carolee’s sporadic appearances at a small nightclub in town. One night an older man strikes up a conversation with him, and turns out to be Carolee’s father Sam, a man with serious matchmaking on his mind. He gives Max an entrée into Carolee’s life, and keeps bringing him round, despite his daughter’s protests.
Eventually, Carolee and Max fall in love, of course, but I really have no idea why. Neither character is well-defined or particularly lovable, although neither is terribly offensive. They seem to have comfort rather than any chemistry, except for the first sex scene – and it is certainly not a love scene – in which the heroine locks the two of them in his office (with her daughter outside, no less) and all but attacks him in a moment lacking entirely in any sort of tenderness.
Aside from the romance, the story of a woman fighting to regain custody of her daughter from her ex-husband (who goes from almost reasonable to psycho in the blink of an eye) would be nearly believable if it didn’t rely on plot devices that frequently make no sense. For instance, Kip repeatedly brings up Carolee’s seemingly devastating family history to use against her, saying that her sister Linda told him about it, but why she would do such a thing is incomprehensible, particularly since we’re told she never liked him. Or when Sam picks Max out the crowd at the nightclub, seeing him listening to Carolee’s playing, and without exchanging more than few words, decides to match Max up with Carolee. What’s wrong with this old guy? Hasn’t he heard of psychos? He makes it clear he thinks Kip is one, but what makes him so certain Max isn’t? We never know, mostly because his thoughts, like those of everyone – including Max’s and Carolee – are never revealed to the reader. Tell Me Why, indeed.
All in all, the flat characters, poorly justified and awkward plotting, and lack of any kind of zing between the hero and heroine earns this book a flat-out D. Sure, it could be worse, but it could be better – lots better. Give this one a pass.