Talia Hibbert’s Brown sister trilogy is a delightful smorgasbord of varying characters. Each with their worlds and personalities curated so specifically, as to make those with similar quirks feel uncanny about their lives splayed out on the page. There’s Chloe, a chronically ill web designer obsessed with lists; Danika, a bisexual academic averse to romance; and Eve, a chaotic ball of sunshine on the autistic spectrum, with a great love for music. Representation matters, sure, but feeling seen? That’s the real game-changer. Romance has the gift of engaging in both the specifics as well as the universal truth that at the end of the day, we all want to be loved. In exploring this truth through characters made so precisely and carefully, she offers us the best of both worlds.
A quick aside: this review is about the third offering in the trilogy: Act your Age, Eve Brown. I mention all the sisters, however, as a strong endorsement; do yourself a favour and read all three in order.
I’m of the mind that a good romance book might just be the most calming reading experience. I cannot think of a more soothing practice than reading a book in which you know what your character's desires are, and that by the end, they will surely be fulfilled. The unfair criticism of romance for its predictability is a tell that one hasn’t engaged with the genre enough. An avid romance reader knows that the simplicity is but a chance for the anticipation to be masterfully layered between the meet-cute and make-up sandwich. And Hibbert is nothing short of masterful in Act your Age, Eve Brown.
The synopsis (through Eve’s eyes) is simple: An existentially struggling Eve Brown stumbles into a controlling and uptight Jacob Wayne, owner of an understaffed B&B. She ends up taking up a job as the chef to make up for accidentally hitting him with her car (how delightful is the romance genre’s flair for dramatics?). There she finds purpose, love, and a newfound certainty in who she is and what she has to offer. In return, Jacob finally enjoys the acceptance and genuine consideration he missed out on in his childhood.
Hibbert deploys the ‘love-hate’ trope - one that I find often veers on the edge of feeling strained. To avoid this, she trades in ‘hate’ for a much more convincing and amusing mixture of irritation and sarcasm making their interactions far less contrived than in Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game (the couple’s hatred of each other too often seems juvenile to me). Accurate to the trope though, the couple ends up finding themselves in odd settings set up to bring them closer. Stuck in a supplies closet eavesdropping on guests, at a meeting for a gingerbread festival, even the bottom of a pond (any further explanation of each of these peculiar situations would be a spoiler not necessary for the writing of this review).
Their irritation of each other is amusing of course because readers will quickly identify it as a veil for attraction. But still present enough that its persistence builds up as much tension for us as it does for the couple. When Hibbert does finally let the veil slip off, she taps into one of her most powerful assets: writing a steamy sex scene. Time is stretched to fit in every hitch of the breath, and each swell of anticipation. The feelings are given as much significance as the physical acts being performed.
When attention is eventually drawn to the physical, you get what is perhaps the most explorative sex scene I have ever read. As a loophole for avoiding the moral (and emotional) dilemma that he suspects will follow after sleeping with his employee, Jacob decides to fuck Eve with her 12-inch purple dildo. “I’m going to do this,” Jacob reasons, “and then I’m going to leave you the hell alone.” He tries to convince himself; “I’ll just help you a little bit,” which has to be the funniest way to describe having sex with someone.
Now it must be said that Reddington, Chloe Brown’s (Eve’s sister) love interest is still the sexiest sounding of the men from the trilogy, but Jacob Wayne without a doubt sounds like the most sexually capable. The writer illustrates this candidly with each incredibly sensual scene that makes it impossible to read in public without shifting in your seat. Along with the calm of a happy ending, the romance genre brags the importance it places on a woman’s pleasure. The orgasm gap is damn near non-existent, a fantasy you don’t have to convince me to get on board with. And with an extensive collection of erotica to her name (a quick read of her catalogue will reveal to readers that it is the emotional journey the writer had to get better at writing; the sensual she truly has a natural knack for), Hibbert is more than qualified to wield that fantasy.
An earnest attempt to illustrate that the pair come to their senses soon after the conflict and choose to return to each other admittedly ends up feeling rather rushed (it makes up only a chapter and a bit, out of a total of twenty-one chapters). But by then I certainly had had my fill of Eve and Jacob’s love story.