The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell
Published by Flatiron Books, 305 pages, $26
Weaving together many dimensions, Boston author Sharon Pywell wittily prances from one viewpoint to the next in her latest novel. Two sisters, Neave and Lilly, get together after World War II in Lynn to start a Mary-Kay-style cosmetics company. But, as sisters can be, they’re different.
From the start of the book, Pywell introduces the reader to Lilly in the afterlife, foreshadowing her demise as a woman who is reckless and feckless with men, a neglectful mother who continues to reject Neave’s worries about her dangerous second husband, Ricky. As an escape, the introverted Neave often turns to a pirate-romance book she found as a child that still ignites her otherwise hidden self. In that book within a book, a working-class sexpot Electra, also a daring feminist, deals with dangerous brothers who battle each other aboard a ship, fighting for this petticoat-wearing-
yet-nimble heroine. Pywell prints passages from the fictional tale in this novel, at times mirroring the actual plot. After Lilly vanishes, she reappears alongside the sisters’ deceased, frisky dog, Mr. Boppit. From beyond, Lilly and Mr. Boppit advise and protect Neave who is running the business while also running from the abusive Ricky who has seemingly murdered Lilly.
Pywell plays wonderfully with irony; the wild sister, now more balanced in death, helps her sensible sister deal with danger on earth. Neave’s own life echoes the pirate book’s storyline as she negotiates between two brothers, Ricky and his more reasonable brother. And when booming business success comes along, romance soon follows.
From page 138: “Even though my early training for Be Your Best parties had given me some competence with makeup, I’d still let Lilly give advice on wardrobe. She’d been disgusted that I hadn’t asked him where we were going. ‘The ladies’ room at Locke Ober needs an entirely different look than the benches at Durgin Park.’” ◆