Thank You for Listening by Julia Whelan
August 2, 2022, by Avon
Review by Melanie
First, let’s get this out of the way: I hate the term women’s fic. No need to dismissively label an entire genre just because it focuses on a female protagonist’s journey. Just call it fiction. We’re not going around labeling Franzen as men’s fic, are we? (Wait, ARE we?!?) So, yes, while I have labeled it as women’s fiction per the publishing industry standards, please let it be known that I rolled my eyes the entire time I was doing it.
Julia Whelan is a new to me author but for those of you who are big into audiobooks, you may have heard of her (or just heard her voice) because she’s quite the prolific audiobook narrator. Per her Goodreads bio, she has narrated over 500 (!!) books and is Grammy-nominated for audiobook directing! She is also a former child actress, having gained some degree of fame on a hit tv show in the late 90s and early aughts.
So, then, it makes sense that her second book is all about an audiobook narrator named Sewanee (pronounced SWAH-nee) Chester, a one-time tv actress on the cusp of major movie star fame who had to pivot to a different career path when a tragic accident causes her to lose an eye.
While there is a strong romantic element to this book, complete with a HEA, it very much doesn’t feel like a romance novel. One can certainly argue about whether the romantic storyline drives the plot of the story (I would land on the side of no, it doesn’t). Really, the story is about Sewanee and her journey of self-love and self-acceptance and growth, all of which in turn make it possible for her to find and accept love from another person.
Sewanee, with her complicated internal life and difficult family dynamics, engages in a steamy one-night stand with an Irish charmer by the name of Nick who she meets at the end of a book conference in Las Vegas. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas…unless you’re the protagonist of a women’s fic with strong romantic elements. She doesn’t even give him her real name, no contact information is exchanged, despite these two strangers experiencing a deeply profound emotional connection and an incredibly sexy physical one.
Back to her regular life in Los Angeles, Sewanee, who got her start in audiobook narration with romance novels under a pseudonym but has since stepped back from the genre, is compelled to return to the genre to record a romance novel by the late June French. She needs money to help pay for her beloved grandmother’s care and so she agrees to the terms, recording these books with Brock McNight, one of the most popular romance audiobook narrators whose real identity is a mystery to his legions of fans.
The two never meet before they embark on a working relationship that takes on an epistolary form via emails and then texts. I adore an epistolary romance and a good chunk of the book is the two of them bantering back and forth via texts. It’s both light and funny and breezy and also deep and emotionally vulnerable, revealing both of these characters to the reader through concise bursts of dialogue.
I’m not going to spoil much beyond this but I’ve been reading romance novels for almost 3 decades so it didn’t take a lot of time to connect the dots in this book. That being said, knowing what’s coming doesn’t in any way detract from all the reasons why the book works and there are still many more surprises around the bend.
I adored both of these characters but let’s be honest, it’s Sewanee who is the real star of the show. Hurting from dreams unrealized and unable to completely move on, Sewanee’s pain is real and gripping and you feel every single moment of her struggle to accept who she is and her attempt to reconcile it with who she was.
The side characters are also amazing, mostly serving to further Sewanee’s journey but they all have distinctive voices of their own, fully formed characters with dreams and hopes and loss.
In a lot of ways, this book is a love letter to the romance genre so it’s interesting that the book itself can’t really be considered a romance novel. Sewanee and Nick (and then Sewanee’s alter ego, Sarah and Brock) talk about tropes, about the euphemisms used in sex scenes, and about why Sewanee stepped back from narrating romance books and why Brock wants to escape it himself.
It’s a fascinating way of looking at HEAs and why we love them so much, what they mean to us, and how we use them to deal with our daily lives. One of the most poignant lines in the book comes from Sewanee explaining to Nick how her thinking has evolved about romance and the whole idea of a HEA.
I don’t think you can know if you lived happily ever after until your life’s over.” She set down her glass. “Maybe that’s why your whole life flashes before your eyes when you die. So you can see the movie from beginning to end and know.
Anyway, it’s not ridiculous. It’s not bullshit. It is possible. It’s not fantasy or reality. A happily ever after is built by both, together, over a lifetime.
There’s something so lovely about a woman on a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance learning that the whole idea of a HEA is also built on a journey that never really ends. We read these fictional books about fictional characters and their stories end with the book giving us their requisite HEA. But in reality, that’s really just the beginning of the story and this book manages to encapsulate that idea much more eloquently than I ever could.
I feel like this whole review kind of got away from me and I rambled but let me just be clear on a few things:
- This book is a (ughh) women’s fic with a strong romantic element and;
- I very much loved it.
Content Notes: Sewanee suffers a horrific accident that causes the loss of an eye; the accident is referred to in detail via flashback; toxic father/daughter relationship, off-page cheating between side characters, side character is hospitalized for exhaustion, reference to mental health issues and therapy, off page alcoholism of minor character, sick grandmother with memory loss and eventual death;