Of course I loved Talk Sweetly To Me, by Courtney Milan. I love everything by Courtney Milan. Having me review her books is almost farcical at this point because it’s a forgone conclusion that I’m going to love her books. However, I do love some of her books more than others – sometimes for personal reasons and sometimes for technical ones. Talk Sweetly was personal catnip but it had a couple of technical flaws.
Talk Sweetly is a novella set in 1882. It’s about Stephen Shaughnessy, who we all know and love from his “Ask a Man” column which was so sublimely introduced in Milan’s last novel, The Suffragette Scandal. Stephen has a reputation as a rake and his column is quite scandalous (and hilarious, and touching). Stephen is an Irish Catholic with a working class background. He has risen in the world largely by virtue of sheer audacity. Stephen is madly in love with his neighbor, Rose Sweetly.
Rose is a computer. Before there were modern computers, there were people, almost always women, who were very good at math and who were hired by male astronomers and other scientists to do calculations. The term is not an anachronism – it’s been in use since at least 1613 (thank you, Wikipedia). Rose is a brilliant computer. She’s also “of African descent.” Rose lives with her very pregnant sister.
Stephen manipulates Rose into becoming his tutor. This is a creepy move, which Rose promptly points out. It’s in character for Stephen, who has always gotten what he wants by being audacious, but also it’s creepy. Rose does not believe that Stephen would marry her so she’s determined not to be seduced by him despite that fact that she is hopelessly enamored of him at the start of the book. She falls more and more in love with him as the story continues and it becomes clear that while Stephen thinks Rose is quite a hottie, the real attraction is her mind.
So we have two things going on. The primary story is that of Rose and Stephen, who have a courtship over math and astronomy. Trust Courtney Milan to make measuring the distance between stars incredibly sexy.
Meanwhile, Rose’s sister’s husband is at sea (he’s a naval doctor) and Rose is trying to help her sister through a difficult pregnancy despite being impeded by an asshat doctor. Seriously, he might just as well have “RACIST VILLAIN” stamped across his forehead. I wish I could say that the level of racism he displays is overdone but alas I think if anything Rose encounters less racism in her daily life than I’d expect. Still, I wished the villain had been more nuanced and interesting – not because I find it unlikely that Rose would encounter such a total wretched waste of oxygen, but because I think nuanced villains make for a more engaging, more challenging story.
The charm in the story comes from Rose and Stephen’s interactions and how much Stephen admires her intellectual capabilities. Stephen is appalled at her lack of professional prospects and he has nothing but admiration for how Rose conducts her life and does her science. I’m helpless before the power of a man admiring a woman because she’s smart. Stephen is a tireless advocate for women’s rights and he does not believe that Rose should be held back because of her race or gender.
There’s also some things I liked about Rose’s background. Of course I liked Rose, who has a nice character arc as she gains confidence in herself. But I also liked her family. Rose’s sister’s husband is a naval doctor and their father runs a store and is a board member of a group that gives scholarships to black medical students. This book breaks the stereotype that Victorian England was all white (for a fantastic look at “Black Victorians” check out this map from The Equiano Center). The book also breaks the stereotype that to be black one would be an oddity or a servant, while still acknowledging racism. And finally, the story gives recognition to women (the computers) who served science so diligently with so little recognition. If you like social justice stories with a big heaping servings of science, you will gobble this book right up.
This is a novella, and its biggest flaw is that it can’t figure out if it wants to be a short story or a novel. Frankly, the main conflict seems pretty avoidable and then once Rose introduces an actual, serious conflict it’s brushed over because of the Power of Love. Actually, I think these two crazy kids will be just fine due to the power of love, but the pacing seems jumpy. The sex scene is erotic and sweet, but for once it seems arbitrary. It doesn’t build character in the way I’ve come to expect from Milan, partly because the conflict is over at that point. It’s there because, by golly, every novella needs a sex scene.
Because of the one-dimensional villian and the structural problems, this isn’t Milan’s best work, but it’s still charming. Compared to most of the novellas I’ve read by other authors, it’s sublime. Milan has set such a high bar for herself that I need a whole different scale to grade her by. If I grade this with her other work as a comparison as opposed to every other novella on earth as a comparison, I’d give it a B. It doesn’t stand up to the pacing and detail and character development of her full-length novels and I also think that it is slightly less well done than her novellas The Governess Affair and A Kiss for Midwinter.
This isn’t Milan’s best work, but it’s a solid novella that has a science heroine (y’all know how I feel about scientific protagonists of any gender), a strong social justice stance (yay, team) and plenty of lovely writing. Of course I loved it, how could I not? I’m not made of stone, here! But it does suffer from being rushed, as so many novellas do.