One of the perks of living in a college town like Chambana is the steady influx of new residents, and new voices. When Maryland-born writer Megan Montgomery arrived, she brought with her a big juicy bite of Chesapeake Bay culture. This stew of seafood, sailboats, and Naval bases serves as the backdrop for her spicy debut novel, Well...That Was Awkward.
It's been a while since I've consumed, or been consumed by, a work in this genre. But spending several days inside this bayside romp provided a much needed change of scenery, both from the increasingly cold Midwestern landscape and the reality of the pandemic.
Well...That Was Awkward is as exuberant and voluptuous (read: thick and full of curves) as its heroine Emerson Broome. Montgomery's choice of first-person narration dictates that we spend a considerable amount of time in Emerson's head. And let's just say there's a lot going on in there. Emerson's thoughts are filled with passion, fear, wit, insecurity, desire, plus a wealth of knowledge about old movies, weightlifting, and the appraisal and restoration of antiques, all set to a heavy metal soundtrack. She works hard to grow the business she inherited from her absentee parents and she cares about her friends and her community. A lot. All of this makes hers an compelling and empathetic voice. She is someone we want to root for. Highly specific and unique for a "romance novel heroine," Emerson Broome is far from the vague "every girl" avatar meant to draw the reader into her work boots. And Megan Montgomery is far too smart of a writer to rely on that old trick.
Image from the author's Goodreads page
The plot, at its core, is fairly simple. She sees him, likes what she sees, he sees her, something very awkward happens which I will not spoil for you here. And because this occurs in a small town, they continue to meet, and do the "will they or won't they dance" until they, well, you'll just have to find out for yourself. What makes this book work as well as it does is the richness of character, subplot, and theme that Montgomery has carefully layered against the seemingly simple story scaffolding. In fact, when I approached the middle of the book I stopped to wonder how all of these layers could possibly be resolved within the remaining pages. I'm glad to say that they were. Thoughtfully and with a few good surprises, to boot.
If this were a graduate seminar I would comment on the novel's brilliant use of intertextuality (and, no, that's not a typo). And what I would mean is that this ambitious writer takes on a number of romance genre tropes, upending many of them in the process. Emerson has Mr. Darcy fantasies (of the wet shirted Colin Firth emerging from the lake variety) which infuses the story with the ghost of Pride and Prejudice, which is, in many ways, a mirror of Emerson and John's rocky road to love. The ongoing dilemma of whether or not to attend the Bugeye Ball (and whom to attend it with) evokes, and eventually undermines, the Cinderella narrative.
And while it is a heteronormative tale, it is inclusive, and its lessons run far deeper than any fairy tale. Montgomery takes the magic makeover story and turns it on its head. While the right gown can improve confidence, it can not heal old wounds, or create a path forward. And as Montgomery shows, only courage and hard work can do this. Em keeps herself so busy restoring highboys [read: antique cabinets] in order to avoid facing her loneliness and her need to leave old habits and fears behind.
The real magic comes not from a single fairy godmother offering a sparkling dress and a handsome prince. It comes from a community of people who are there for Emerson when she needs them most. Who wake her up from the misguided notion that she is in it alone. I found myself thinking of that old saying "many hands make light work," and call me corny, but it was a welcome and heartwarming thought to hold onto these days. Ultimately, Emerson learns that love comes in different forms and speaks many different languages. Some offer help when you'd least expect it. Some show love by sharing their vulnerabilities and imperfections. And none of it is easy. Sometimes you need a good translator. Early in the book we see Em neurotically partnering up mismatched salt and pepper shakes. Later on she learns that different does not always mean mismatched. In fact, it might just mean the opposite.
Kudos to Megan Montgomery for giving us a badass leading lady, whose story has real consequences, and surprising depth—and yes, some very spicy sex.
The author will be giving a Zoom talk for the Mahomet Library on January 31st entitled, "How to Write and Publish Your Own Book." See the links below to get more details.