04 March, 2008

Sweet Nothings, by Pauline Montagna. Anthology review

Available as free e-books (PDF format) from Pauline Montagna’s website (click on Sweet Nothings in the left-hand navigation bar for the table of contents).

Sweet Nothings is a collection of romantic short stories and novellas, most set in contemporary Australia. At the time of writing the collection is as follows:

Short stories:

  • Disconnected

  • The Beautiful Princess

  • I’ll always have Chiang Mai

  • Desideratum

  • Ever the Bridesmaid

Regulars here may be mildly surprised to see a review of a contemporay romance anthology, since I’m not, on the whole, a card-carrying romance fan. I came across Pauline Montagna’s site via her e-zine on historical fiction, The Romance of History (well worth reading through the archives), and gradually found my way to the rest of the site. Sweet Nothings caught my eye. I tried The Beautiful Princess and found it to be a fairytale set in the timeless land of once-upon-a-time, laced with a refreshing dose of common sense, a touch of humour, economically sketched characters, and rather a charming twist on the classic narrative. Having enjoyed that one, naturally I read the rest.

The other stories in the collection are contemporary, set in Australia and Thailand. I laughed over Disconnected, with its circular tangle of mobile phone-induced confusion and conclusion-jumping. I’ll always have Chiang Mai is a blind date with a difference. Desideratum struck me as the most conventional, though the interfering friend was out of the ordinary. Ever the Bridesmaid is my favourite of the contemporary tales, a romantic comedy in which the kind and sensible heroine somehow manages to retain her sanity amid a whirl of other people’s misunderstandings, delusions and manipulations on a group holiday tour of Thailand – and comes out of it with at least the hint of a possible happy ending.

The writing is light, crisp and clear, and most of the stories have an attractive note of comedy to balance the romance. Sweet, yes, but not cloying. And not a heavy-breathing sex scene in sight. Ever the Bridesmaid paints a vivid and lively picture of contemporary tourist Thailand and the undercurrents that develop among a disparate group of strangers on a holiday tour together. I couldn’t predict the twists and turns of the various characters’ emotional entanglements, and the ending is one of optimistic possibility, which I prefer to the nailed-down certainty of the classical happy-ever-after ending. Several of the stories have a similar note of hopeful promise.

With the exception of The Beautiful Princess and Disconnected, the stories are each told from the point of view of a central female character. Not surprisingly, these women are the best developed characters with the other characters in their stories seen mainly through the eyes of the female lead and playing more secondary roles. There’s a certain amount of similarity between the situations of these main female characters – all three are Australian, single, intelligent, educated, and somewhat past youth – but there are subtle differences between them. Helen, in Ever the Bridesmaid, is my favourite. How could I not warm to a woman who quotes Dorothy Parker the first time we meet her? I’m afraid Linda in Desideratum struck me as a bit wet, which is no doubt why that story was the one that worked least well for me. Some of the secondary characters are distinctive enough to threaten to steal the show from the leads, such as the magnificently interfering Elaine in Desideratum. On the whole, I found the women more convincing than the men, perhaps reflecting the traditional female focus of romance.

A collection of light, sweet, crisp, bite-sized romances, as perfect with your coffee as an amaretti biscuit.

Has anyone else read these?


Susan Higginbotham said...

Those sound great! Bedtime here; I'll definitely take a look tomorrow.

Carla said...

Susan- they make a fun read