You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me is Sarra Manning’s second adult novel. All the standard ingredients for chick-lit are there – the “ugly duckling” heroine Neve, her fashion-obsessed sister Celia, the long-distance love interest William and the glamorous and sexy “man-whore” Max, with a host of supporting characters by turns superficial, bitchy, introverted, or furry (in the case of Keith the dog). Neve, downsizing from a size 32 to 14 through exercise and dieting, is a very real person with a love for books and words, and gentle mockery for what she sees as the superficial world of chick-lit and fashion magazines, which I think, shows more than a hint of Sarra Manning herself in there.
The story unfolds quite predictably and we follow Neve on an unsurprising journey to self-acceptance and swanhood. Neve is waiting for William, who she sees as her soulmate, to return to England from a teaching stint in LA, and is transforming her appearance in order to make him fall madly in love with her new svelte self. Neve’s sister Celia, who works for a fashion magazine, recommends that Neve gain some relationship experience before William returns, so Neve embarks on a plan to secure a “pancake” relationship – a cooking analogy where you always toss away the first pancake made, because it is just used for testing the batter. Enter Max, Celia’s editor, the sexy bad-boy who is, of course, a serial commitment avoider. Naturally Neve can’t stand him from the moment they meet, and equally naturally they are drawn to each other and in the end, naturally, make delicious pancakes together, all the while knowing that William’s return is just around the corner.
There’s some superbly written conflict and break-up scenes which will make you curl up with pain, and when Max tells her “you’ll always be a fat girl on the inside” we feel the hit to our bones, but you will empathise with Neve’s struggle to overcome familiar feelings of inadequacy and shame and to take charge by controlling how she perceives herself, and how she perceives the world. Along the way, other, non-pancake, relationships are formed, broken, or mended in entirely satisfying ways, and I dare any woman reading this book to not be thrilled by the thought of Celia’s magazine’s fashion wardrobe being opened to Neve for her eventual date with William!
While the novel would tend towards the “lit” side of chick-lit, it is still definitely, unashamedly, chick-lit. I finished, or should I say, devoured, it over a weekend of plus-40 degree celcius temperatures sitting under the fan, and I can’t be sure whether I was flushed from the heat or from amusement, shared embarrassment for Neve or from the delicious seduction scenes which involved nothing more than kisses on the couch – to start off with. It is a great escapist read, with a satisfying ending, and a nice helping of romance and sex. Sarra Manning has written a fabulous novel and I look forward to more from her soon!
Available now: Random House RRP $32.95