I need to say right off the bat that I love and respect Julie Garwood. She was one of the historical romance authors I cut my teeth on when being introduced to the genre and Honor’s Splendor reigned for over decade as one of the best historical romances I ever read (until I met Stephanie Laurens’ books, that is). I still recommend her to library patrons looking for quality historical romance.
But I hadn’t really read any of her romantic suspense fiction, not even her acclaimed Buchanan series (and I plan to tackle them this summer). I wouldn’t want to judge her ability to write in this genre based on her latest book, Sweet Talk which I was able to get in Advanced Reader Copy form via NetGalley.
This book begins with a very long, but interesting prologue about four young girls living on a special hospital ward because they all suffer from the same rare disease, which I suppose we are meant to think is cancer because chemotherapy is one of the treatments. Their young personalities are well-drawn and there is a poignant scene of them pranking the staff by hiding in a storage closet and mentioning their dreams, which they naturally doubt they’ll be able to fulfill. A decent amount of copy is spent on Olivia since the girls observe that hers is the only family who doesn’t come to visit her. With the exception of her Aunt Emma, Olivia’s wealthy family acts like she doesn’t exist.
Flash forward to the present and beautiful Olivia is an IRS agent worried about her job since she knows layoffs are coming down the pike. She happens to also be a lawyer who does child advocacy work in her spare time on the weekends, but right now she is busy interviewing for other jobs related to finance in case she finds herself unemployed.
She has an unexpected interview with a powerful man at a five-star D.C. restaurant, but in the middle of the realization that this pompous sleazeball is someone for whom she would never work, the guy freaks out, rips her dress down the front and accuses her of wearing a wire, all while threatening to kill her. His bodyguard goes crazy, hitting Olivia and pulling a gun on her, but before she can get away, an agent tackles him, saving her.
Meet Grayson Kincaid, an FBI agent who seems to be able to take on whatever case he wants, and who coincidentally comes from just as privileged a background as Olivia in terms of wealth and influence. He ends up paying for lunch since she clearly missed it. (Did she have safety pins in her purse? Was her dress not ripped down the front while they are eating?) He calls her up to ask more questions, meets her at her nice apartment and escorts her to a swanky event under the pretense of speaking with her about the case, acknowledges the attraction between them by giving her an amazing goodnight kiss and then…doesn’t talk to her for two months.
What? Okay, we find out that Grayson has a busy life since he now has full custody of his young nephew, Henry, and that he clearly has never heard of texting. When Olivia gets shot three times in front of her Georgetown apartment, he goes FBI crazy, guards her OR door, takes over the case (how does it fall in his jurisdiction? I’m confused), and tries to find out what’s going on.
Olivia is baffled but glad he’s back in her life and he finds out in his investigation what a great person she is (naturally), about her medical history, her great work for kids, etc. He also finds out from Olivia that her goal in life is to bring down her father and place him in jail because he’s running a Ponzi scheme that will ruin thousands of people’s lives and she’s not willing to let him get away with it.
In addition to this point driving the plot, there is also the suspicion of who else might be trying to kill Olivia. Dissatisfied relatives of the children she protects or the gun-dealing bodyguard who tried to hurt her in the restaurant? A subplot of one of her childhood hospital friends and her supposedly recovered addict brother has a conclusion any reader can spot literally in the first paragraph it’s introduced.
I guess my major issue was related to writing. I know what an excellent writer Julie Garwood is and this book felt…rushed, I guess, as if it were the third draft of a book she’d fleshed out for plot and structure but needed to go back and hone the writing and characters. Olivia and Grayson are very two-dimensional, particularly Grayson, who frustrated the hell out of me. After sleeping with her, he disappears again for two weeks in an effort to keep his distance and not compromise the investigation, all without telling her anything. Dude, you have a smart phone. Call or text her with your reservations. Olivia just takes him back with her “live in the now because chances are my illness will come back tomorrow” philosophy. *wrapping fingers around her neck here*
The prose focuses on telling us what characters are thinking rather than showing us, which made much of the reading rather dull. “She noticed he was muscular” should totally have been a description of how his suit jacket rippled over his shoulders and her body’s response to it. It’s writing 101, so what’s going on? Julie is better than this! I feel almost like the intern was in charge of this book.
But I kept turning the pages waiting for one major point to happen, namely for Olivia to actually contribute to helping convict her father…but it doesn’t happen. Yes, she goes and talks to people, but is she not a competent IRS officer? She can’t discover anything? Grayson almost single-handedly takes care of everything. No wonder he can’t find time to text.
The other ambiguity which affected my reading was the question, still up in the air for me, about this book – is it part of a series, or not? We have all four girls/women introduced with their background and interesting careers with attraction even indicated between Olivia’s friend Collins and Grayson’s FBI partner. But there is no indication on Garwood’s website or Goodreads that Sweet Talk is meant to be the first book in a series. So I have to read all that prologue and all I get is Olivia’s story?
Oh, and Garwood’s publisher is clearly smoking crack if they think that readers are going to be happy to pay $12.99 for the Kindle edition of this book. Seriously? I don’t care that it’s 368 pages (and by the way, that could have been a lot less if one of the tiresome subplots were cut), in a world of $7.99 ebooks as the norm, this price is highway robbery.
I think what galls me the most is this book held the potential, particularly in the hands of such an excellent writer, to be an engaging romantic suspense novel, but it misses the mark. I’m going to reread some of my favorite Julie Garwood novels of the past and try and expunge this one from my memory.