Constant Reader Book of The Month December: Thank You For Listening By Julia Whelan
No Julia, Thank You
To explain why I have chosen this novel to wrap up my initial year as a book reviewer requires some personal history. First, when I was only eight or nine, I liked listening to recordings of books. However, listening to an audio book in the 1980s was different then. I would go to my local library and get LPs of short stories and children’s books which I would listen to over and over. Cricket in Times Square, Mr. Popper Penguins, quite a bit of Dr. Seuss, fairy tales, Aesop’s fables, even some of Kipling’s Just So Stories. But the older I got the habit of purely listening to something began to leave me. (I was also a fan of recordings of old-time radio shows; that habit was essentially gone by the time I was a teenager.
That said, it’s not that I don’t understand the appeal of the audiobook. Most people don’t have the time to read or carry enormous tomes with them everywhere. And when you are commuting, it’s easier to listen to a book on your headphones or an iPhone or any electronic device than it is to carry a copy of one. Besides, who could resist the voices of Alan Cumming or Stephen Fry or any of the dozens of celebrities reading classics to you?
Which brings me to the next part of my backstory. Earlier this year, I wrote an article in my ‘Underrated Series’ where I discussed my love for the turn of the century ABC drama Once & Again. The performances across the board were magnificent, but I was drawn to the work of the child actors involved. Shane West and Evan Rachel Wood have dominated TV and movies for the next decade to come, but my favorite one among them — indeed, almost the entire cast — was Julia Whelan’s work as Grace Manning, the daughter trying to understand her mother’s beginning to date, her father’s infidelity, and the fact that her family is expanding with little control. Whelan’s work was one of the best performances by a teen actor I’d ever seen, the equal of Claire Danes in My So-Called Life (perhaps not coincidentally, that series was also the creations of Marshall Herskowitz and Edward Zwick, the show-runners behind Once and Again) and was certain that Whelan was destined for superstardom. But unlike West and Wood, when the series ended, she basically disappeared from Hollywood without a trace and I didn’t know why.
So just a few weeks ago, I’m on my way home and I stop at a book store in Penn Station. I’m browsing and not really paying attention to the titles in front of me when I see a book called Thank You for Listening and the author is….Julia Whelan. I think I did a double take. I turned the book over just to be sure. Yes, it was that Julia Whelan. Her bio says she is a ‘lifelong actor, screenwriter, and award-winning audiobook narrator of over five hundred titles. “ I also see that this is her second novel, and that her first novel My Oxford Year garnered her an award for her performance of that in an audiobook.
It is a measure of my restraint that I did not seize the book that very moment and rush to the cashiers. Instead, I noted the books name and decided to save it for a future date. The future day would turn out to be tomorrow. I was in a Barnes and Noble, doing a more prolonged browse, and I found it again. (I may have been looking in the ‘W’ section of new releases for it, but really who can say?) This time, I did not hesitate, and I bought the book along with a couple of others I wanted. I started reading it in the Uber home.
Now to be clear, I did not read Thank You For Listening hoping I might find some clue as to why Whelan had essentially left acting. I actually was more interested as to whether an actress I had admired was as good a writer as she was a performer. She is.
Thank You for Listening is not autobiographical: in the author’s notes Whelan tries very hard to pull away from that, even going into detail. Nevertheless, I imagine certain people will want to read Whelan’s backstory into that of her lead character, Sewanee Chester. It’s kind of hard not to see parallels: Sewanee, like Whelan, is an audiobook narrator and she was a child actress who started her career in TV and ended up in film. There are, of course, very key difference. The most obvious being, Sewanee didn’t choose so much to leave Hollywood as being forced out. Sewanee has an eyepatch and we don’t learn the cause until the halfway point of the novel.
Sewanee is a success and satisfied with her work — so she says, but there’s a part of her still yearning for her old life. We see that when she goes to a Las Vegas audio book convention and has a reunion with her former roommate, Adaku Obi, an African-American Oscar nominated actress and Sewanee’s best friend when they were starting out. Adaku is still humble and the two of them do love each other, but Sewanee still wants to be in the shadows because of her eyepatch and doesn’t think she can act. (The actress who came to mind when I pictured Adaku in my head was Thandie Newton, and strangely enough when I saw Sewanee I saw not Whelan but her former co-star Evan Rachel Wood. )
Sewanee says she is happy but there’s more in her life that says otherwise. Her grandmother, a failed Hollywood star who insists Sewanee call Blahblah is at a nursing home and in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. Her parents have been divorced for a while, ever since her father’s infidelity with a grad student. Father and daughter have an uneasy relationship, and Sewanee does not want to face what is coming for her grandmother. Her relationship with her mother, Marilyn, by contrast is sunny and warm, even though at the start of the novel she’s on a tour of Italy with her boyfriend, you can tell from the text messages they exchange that this a very good relationship.
Perhaps most interestingly, despite having had some of her greatest success as a narrator of romance under the name Sarah Westholme, Sewanee retired from doing romance five years earlier. In the opening of the book, she is considered ‘the White Whale of romance audiobooks’ even now. We get a hint of this at the convention when she gives a speech just how sick she is of the trope before she manages to correct herself.
Then, that night after a depressing day, she meets a striking man named Nick. Sewanee is staying in Adaku’s suite (Adaku, naturally, is trying to trick her in to having fun) and Sewanee decides to play along. She uses her acting muscles and pretends to be Alice, a romance editor. She and Nick flirt, they enjoy each other’s company, they go to the roulette table. Nick is about to leave the hotel, when naturally, there’s a freak snowstorm in Vegas. Sewanee invites Nick to stay in Adaku’s suite. We all know what’s going to happen, but like a good romance novel, we cut away just as the good part starts.
Sewanee naturally thinks she will never see Nick again. Then she goes back to her studio in LA. Their the studio is buzzing. June French, one of the great romance novelists history, has passed away and her last request was that ‘Sarah Westholme’ read her last book. (Apparently she was June’s favorite narrator.) Sewanee is offered the kind of money that most of us would instantly accept it, but it takes her awhile for personal reasons — BlahBlah’s deterioration is progressing and she’s going to need more expensive care. She then learns that she will be co-narrating the novel with Brock McKnight, the most mysterious and beloved narrator in romance novels. Because of how audiobooks work, neither have to be in the same place or even the same country to do this narration.
The next section of the novel is devoted almost exclusively to emails and later text messages between ‘Sarah’ and ‘Brock’. The chapter leading to this is titled ‘Epistolary’, which is an old term for a book that was told through letters or written material. I was struck in that Whelan has clearly realized that for all the vices that we see in electronic communication, there are clearly virtues as well. Both ‘Brock’ and ‘Sarah’ feel no shame in letter their guard down through emails between them. Furthermore, because the return between them is nearly instantaneous, it has the feel of flirtatious banter from a Tracy-Hepburn movie or, yes, an eighties romantic comedy. The two have the kind of banter about innuendo, which is wonderful, discussions of the kind of random thoughts we have about speech (just who is the ‘Pete’ in ‘for Pete’s sake) and the kind of discussion we sometimes don’t even have with our closest friends after knowing them for years.
All that said, neither is willing to let their guard down. While Sewanee eventually gives Brock her real name, Brock does not give her his. Brock discusses the idea of having a conversation over the phone, but Sewanee does not want to leave the bubble they’re in. And while Sewanee eventually writes an email about the accident that took her eye from her, she ends up deleting it before sending it because she is terrified of letting this vulnerability out.
But the two clearly are falling for each other. Brock lets her know he’s going to be in LA before a convention. And then… well, if you’ve read even a few of these novels I think you may know some of the tropes by now. Some of you may have even deduced who Brock really is, though I have left out a crucial part about how Brock came to narrate this particular June French novel and I’m not going to even hint and how it pays off.
To be clear, from the beginning Whelan makes no attempt to hide the kind of book she is writing. The titles of all of her chapters do have the feel of the romance genre she is poking fun at and still taking seriously: ‘The Best Friend”, ‘What Happens in Vegas’, ‘The Reveal’. The sections of the novel are preceding both with epitaphs from actual writers and June French telling us about how romance novels work. And it’s not like Whelan herself hasn’t spent enough time in this particular world to not know what its like. What Whelan also knows is that however many times we go through these cliches, they’re not as fun when they actually happen. When Sewanee tries to explain to everybody why she’s so outrages, she’s astonished why everyone she tells bursts into hysterical laughter — including her own mother.
Also this is one of those romances that is less about sex and more about love. (Honestly, the most erotic scene in the novel comes in an audiobook Sewanee is listening to on her flight to Vegas, and its so bad that she mocks her boss for sending to her.) I know enough about Whelan to know that she no doubt could right a very sexual novel but that’s not the story she’s trying to tell.
Thank You for Listening is, in a way, the woman’s journey that the first chapter heading says it is (ironically in that context). Sewanee spends much of the novel trying to figure out what’s next. Does she want to be audiobook narrator or go back to Hollywood? Can she be a good granddaughter, a good daughter, and a good friend? Can she find love after undergoing an experience that has literally and figuratively left her scarred? And can she find the ‘happily ever after’ she has spent so much of her time rejecting? Because this is a romance novel, the reader knows the answers to these questions when they pick up the book. What Whelan does is make it clear that Sewanee hasn’t read the book and even if she had, wouldn’t believe those tropes could apply to her.
And maybe that, along with all the other reasons I mentioned at the start, is why I picked Thank You For Listening as my last book of 2022. This has not been an easy year for most of us and while there are some promising signs, the future is always murky. In times like this, we need to turn to our favorite genres in TV and movies and yes, books. Sure we all love the realism of grimness and bleakness, but sometimes you just want to read something where you know at the start, everything’s going to work out fine for everybody at the end.
I’ll wrap this up with a personal message to Whelan. I kneel at your brilliance. You are clearly as great a writer as you were an actress. I hope that someday you choose to return to Hollywood in some form. In the meantime, I shall seek out My Oxford Year and wait with anticipation for your next novel. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even break my own rule and get the audiobook.