Book review: Twice Shy by Sarah Hogle

(courtesy Hachette Australia)

Falling in love is quite wonderful, no matter who you are.

As the anticipatory jitters become nascent attraction and then full-blown head over heels loved up splendour, you find yourself swept up in something which has no real equal with anything else we go through in life.

It’s a life transformative delight no matter how you slice it, but even more so when the two people feeling the full wondrous brunt of Cupid’s arrows have had lives that give every indication that nothing quote so special will ever happen to them.

In Sarah Hogle’s funny, sweet and heartstoppingly gorgeous novel, Twice Shy, with which you will also likely fall headlong in love, those two people are Maybell Parrish and Wesley Koehler, who though from different backgrounds, are all too aware that life doesn’t usually bestow starry-eyed romance on the likes of them.

Maybell has spent years working at a resort for a toxic boss who treats her like the hired help despite her designation as “Events Coordinator” with colleagues like Gemma who, though outwardly bubbly and friendly, has done some terrible things to her coworker in the name of love.

Still dealing with the lingering effects of growing up with a negligent mum only 15 years her senior, Maybell feels, correctly or not, time and time again that her life is bound to be one long disappointment with nothing really remarkable ever going her way.

That night I dream in black and white. I open the cabin’s front door to find that all the trees are gone, only gently sloping hills and prairie smoke flowers everywhere, everywhere, as far as the eyes can see. They slant over and under one another in the breeze, each monochrome tuft a happy wave hello. The manor soars larger than life, laced up with climbing roses rather than creeper vines. There’s a wrought-iron archway in front—FALLING STARS HOTEL—and beneath, in vivid color, Wesley waits for me with an unreadable expression, hand outstretched.

I sit up straight in bed.

That is until she receives word that her Great Aunt Violet has died, a woman who was responsible for gifting Maybell one of the few truly safe and lovingly secure periods of her life, leaving her great-niece her sprawling grounds and lavish nineteenth-century home out in rural Tennessee.

Finally a long-awaited break!

Not even stopping to properly quit her job, Maybell, regretful that she didn’t stay in meaningful contact with her much-loved great-aunt in the intervening years, excitedly arrives at hew new home to discover that Wesley, groundskeeper and carer to an ailing Violet in her final days, is a co-inheritor.

That might be fine except that hunky, handsome Wesley is cantankerous and moody, barely sparing any civil words for his new co-owner who is crushed that her big break is suddenly looking a whole lot smaller and broken.

If you’ve read and watched any romantic comedies, then you will be primed and ready for the launch of a grandly messy opposites attract love story, one replete with much butting of heads, harsh words and a complete non-alignment of minds until, well, we all know what happens next.

The key thing with Twice Shy is that Hogle beautifully plays around in refreshingly entertaining ways with this well-used trope, investing her two protagonists with far more raw, vulnerable humanity and commonality of lived experience than either of them realise, and in so doing, making their initial antagonism and subsequent attraction hilariously and touchingly enjoyable.

She is also brilliantly talented at writing sparkling, witty dialogue that lift buoyantly off the page, making all the exchanges between Maybell and Wesley feel deliciously alive, regardless of where they are in their relationship (or non-relationship at the start of the novel).

Their back-and-forth banter, whether laced with acrimony and angst or awash in the effervescent throes of unexpected attraction or new love, is a pleasure to read, bouncing from character to character with the kind of vibrancy reserved for the greats of the rom-com genre.

Of course, we all know, even at the start of Twice Shy, that the two characters are going to hit it off eventually, having more in common than first meets the eye, but it’s the way they get to the expected and foreordained destination that is a consummate delight every step of a very charmed way.

Maybell, struggling with a blighted childhood that has scarred her adult sense of self, and Wesley, far more anxious and afraid of people and life than he appears, are both lost, vulnerable souls in time of a place to belong, and just as importantly, someone to belong their with.

They need the pleasure and joy of finding that special someone – in fact, Maybell has such a gnawing need to be affirmed and loved that she has an amazing fantasy life with a super-successful café and a boyfriend who looks, ahem, just like Wesley (why is actually distressing than you might think) – but are also afraid of opening themselves up to that possibility since life hasn’t exactly given them much reason to think that will end well.

‘And all along, you were just out here.’ I am off the rails now. ‘Being you. And I was over there, not even knowing.’

‘Now you’re here,’ he replies cheerfully, leaning back so he can view me better.

‘Now I’m here,’ I echo.

But hey, this time life might just end up going somewhere rom-com wonderful.

Not immediately because where on earth would be the fun in that but eventually, as is the way of all superlative rom-coms (and yes, even the average ones) and Twice Shy is most certainly one of them, and you will be hugely and heavily invested from the word go.

Filled with characters who are a pleasure to spend with – important because if you don’t like the people, you won’t care much for the relationship between them – dialogue that zips and sparkles like diamonds on an engagement ring and a love story that might be predictable in its ending but not even remotely in its execution, Twice Shy is a gloriously warm, funny and love-filled story that makes you feel like love is possible, but even better that it’s possible between two people who have had lives that would suggest such a romantic gift shall never be theirs.

That it is, and that it is so wonderfully set-up and set in motion, speaks to how beautifully Hogle practices the rom-com form which in her hands is fresh and original, vibrant and cleverly funny, and above all, a reminder that life isn’t always as horrible as it first appears and that it might just surprise ou with the very best and most loved up of things.

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