A Feel-Good Novel with Surprising Weight: It Felt Like a Kiss by Sarra Manning
But then again, one kiss from someone could mean more than a two-year relationship with someone else. A kiss could change your life.
Sarra Manning’s Unsticky is a novel I recommend all the time—I love how Manning plays with common tropes and archetypes, subverting them into fresh and witty stories. Her newest novel, It Felt Like a Kiss, is no different. And, it has the added bonus of being something of a companion novel to Unsticky, as Vaughn from that novel plays an important role in this one as the owner of the art gallery where It Felt Like a Kiss protagonist Ellie Cohen works.
Ellie lives a carefully-produced life, a reaction to her chaotic, bohemian upbringing with her musician mother.
...when all around you was chaos, you needed to find some area of your life that you could control and let that define you. It didn’t matter that she was on free schoolmeals and had a mother who wore leopard-print catsuits and dressed her in charity-shop clothes, when Ellie had the neatest handwriting in her class and was homework monitor five years in a row. Or when she had a tidier bedroom and better manners than her many cousins, who all lived in two-parent, semi-detached splendour in Belsize Park. When your boss was giving you hell and your flatmates were fighting and you’d been dumped again, there was something cathartic and peaceful in spending the afternoon in your pristine, minimalist office, rearranging your reference books by height and colour. So, a girl who could parade around Glastonbury in a spotless white dress was a girl who was calm and in control. Sometimes you had to fake it to make it.
She’s got a great job, wonderful friends, a loving family and meticulously-managed hair. The one thing that’s not going all that well is her propensity for dating guys that are absolute fixer-uppers. She breaks up with the latest loser at Glastonbury, after he shamelessly snorts cocaine and acts like a jerkface… again.
Shortly thereafter, Ellie’s nearly perfect life implodes. That ex-boyfriend sells the story that she’s the secret child of a Mick Jagger-type rockstar, Billy Kay, to the press and she’s painted as a sex-crazed fame-chaser whose real name is, quite unfortunately, Velvet Underground. Her face (and butt) are all over the infamous London tabloids and paparazzi chase her wherever she goes.
This time last Friday, she could have gone anywhere she wanted, but now she couldn’t pop out to get her hair done. Or go to EAT for a spicy chicken noodle salad, buy a pair of tights, pop in to see Louis with a pile of dry-cleaning; mundane everyday tasks that she’d always taken for granted. Now it was impossible simply to walk down the street without being trailed by a heaving mass of people all trying to take her picture and yelling deeply personal questions at her.
The father she’s never met dispatches his high-powered attorney, David Gold, to manage the crisis that is Ellie. He’s ambitious and this mess is his ticket to a senior partnership. He doesn’t believe Ellie’s as innocent as she acts—and assume the gold-digging party girl the tabloids created is more fact than fiction.
Interspersed with the newfound chaos of Ellie's life and David's crisis management are flashback chapters of her mother’s affair with the married Billy Kay in 1986-87. Ari, Ellie's mother, fell wildly, deeply in love with her father and the pair wrote songs together in a whirlwind of an intense, dysfunctional nine months.
Manning weaves the stories of Ari and Billy Kay (he's always referred to by his full name) and Ellie and David into that sweet spot sort of novel I’m powerless to resist—family, romance and personal growth are peppered with a very current, nuanced examination of the ugly side of people pleasing and gendered double-standards.
As David and Ellie find themselves thrown together, the study in contrasting reactions to their not-so-dissimilar single-mindedness.
Ellie gets what she wants by being a terminal people pleaser, withholding from herself the satisfaction of allowing herself to be hurt or angry. David, on the other hand, assumes the worst of everyone and compartmentalizes his life to an extreme.
In the big scheme of things, it really didn’t matter that she’d met two people today who didn’t like her. Not everyone had to like her and Ellie could see now that her entire life had been spent wanting people to like her, and going all out to make it happen. There was no point in wasting her energy any further, because now everyone she met would already have a negative opinion about her and there was no smile in her repertoire or crisp white dress in the world that would change their mind.
Ellie and David’s romance is a satisfying one that demonstrates why the dreaded “insta-love” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
While the two don’t so much as kiss until two-thirds into the novel, the chemistry between them is electric, which is acknowledged by both characters when they first meet.
While I always enjoy adversarial love interests, there’s something really satisfying in reading about people who really dig each other from the get-go, but whose personal issues keep them apart. As a reader, I enjoy a well-developed exploration of the insanity of attraction, especially ill-advised attraction. Readers who’ve experienced that themselves will appreciate who well-done the experience is portrayed in It Felt Like a Kiss; if that’s not something you can buy into, your mileage will likely be quite different.
It was as if she no longer knew who she was, but vacillated between Ellie Cohen and Velvet Underground, and the person who was there to witness her identity crisis, to see her behave in a way that she never had before, was David.
My biggest reservation about the David-Ellie relationship came from a throwaway moment right before they have sex for the first time.
David didn’t say anything, but his nostrils flared and his jaw tensed, and Ellie was suddenly flat on her back again. ‘Condom?’ he ground out as though talking was causing him all kinds of pain. ‘It’s all right, I’m on the pill,’ Ellie said, and then neither of them said anything...
This is irksome for a couple of reasons.
First of all, David stops at Marks & Sparks (love you/miss you, M&S) to get all the provisions for dinner and some other assorted sundries. Being a meticulous planner you'd think he'd also think to stop somewhere and snag condoms—he thought to buy roasted chicken! It actually doesn't make sense for his character that David would not think of this, since his intentions are extremely clear.
Furthermore, Ellie knows that David has a couple of ongoing casual sex partners, and it's bizarre from what’s revealed about Ellie’s character that she'd be okay with unprotected sex with him, since she's a cautious person and probably knows that one in two people in their age group has/has had an STD. The whole scenario was so unnecessary and added exactly nothing to the story—it's inexplicable, really. I would have rather it not be addressed at all, I suppose, than it feed a dangerous anti-condom narrative which seems to be re-emerging in fiction. Seriously, authors, STDs aren’t sexy and they’re not all curable.
Yes, this has been another condom rant brought to you by Clear Eyes, Full Shelves.
Beyond the Ellie-David relationship, the family dynamics were also compelling.
Ari is a stark contrast to Ellie, a free spirit and passionate musician whose never truly let her daughter into the depths of her past. While Ellie and her mother are incredibly close, there are ways in which Ari wasn’t a great mother, and Manning deftly navigates exploring the whys without excusing Ari’s mistakes. I can’t say much else about this aspect of the novel without massively spoiling it, but the family complexities are far richer than I expected.
In the past, I’ve dismissed “chick lit,” which is the closest genre fitting Sarra Manning’s books, and I think that was unfair of me.
There’s a sort of chick lit that in no way appeals to me—the stuff about shoes and shopping and the like (this type of thing was incredibly popular in the early 2000s, on the heels—ha!—of Sex and the City). However, there’s a subset of the genre that has quite a bit of heft. Sarra Manning’s books in particular fit this bill, but also don’t neglect the humor and fun of the genre.
The apartment also made Ellie rethink her plans for minimalist living because minimalist living was time-consuming and stressful. You had to tidy up after every minor task, from pouring yourself a glass of water to drying your hands on a towel after you’d washed your hands.
I've resolved that I'm going to be kinder about the chick lit label from now on because it keeps proving me wrong. Shocker, like I keep discovering with most genres, there's a vast spectrum in chick lit as well.
Finally, as I mentioned in the introductory paragraph of this post, Vaughn—the enigmatic, difficult, and disturbingly compelling love interest from Unsticky—plays a fairly important role in It Felt Like a Kiss. Without being too spoilery, it was refreshing that Vaughn hadn’t really changed much, except when it came to Grace. As rigid as he was in Unsticky, I would have been disappointed had True Love radically transformed him. Fans of Grace and Vaughn will be sighing all over their Kindles during the brief scene they share in It Felt Like a Kiss.
I really enjoyed It Felt Like a Kiss and tore through it while we were snowed in this weekend (FYI, I hate snow/ice/winter), but I caution that it’s one that will likely be divisive.
The flashbacks to the 1980s worked for me, but I can see them frustrating other readers and fans of Unsticky who hope for another intense romance like Grace and Vaugn’s may be disappointed. This is more about personal growth and identity and figuring how to be comfortable in one’s own skin and that means for what is and is not acceptable in a relationship. With that said, if you're looking for a book that will make you feel pretty damn good, while also being packed with insightful commentary, you could do whole lot worse than It Felt Like a Kiss.
It Felt Like a Kiss is Available in the U.S. on Amazon only and is free if you have access to the Kindle Owners Library. Otherwise, the ebook is $2.99. It’s also published in the U.K. and paperbacks are available through The Book Depository.