As much as I like to escape into the visual world of television and movies, I continue to mourn the loss of my ability to read books. I miss the quiet comfort of a book. The silent escape into the riotous world of someone else’s imagination. The pure magic of letters becoming words, words becoming sentences, and sentences becoming characters, places, memories, and stories.
But constant static clouds my vision, which bends and blurs the words on the page, making it hard to concentrate. Sometimes flares of light stream from each letter. It’s so bright I have to squint and look away. There are no special glasses that help. Not blue-light blockers or specially tinted migraine glasses. Still, I try, now and then, to pick up a book. This time, I think, will be the time that I can concentrate, that my eyes will focus, that the print will not swirl so much that I feel motion sick. It doesn’t work. It never works.
So, I content myself with listening to audiobooks, which are actually in no way a consolation prize—just a shift in perspective—since they themselves are wonderful and magical in the way that one person’s voice can transport you so completely into another world.
I was going to have a whole thing about how I’m picky and judgey about the voices I’ll allow to flow directly into my ear holes, but aren’t we all?!? (Always beware the person who says they aren’t judgemental because COME ON!!) Look, who among us hasn’t started a well-reviewed podcast or audiobook and realized that some quality of a person’s voice or the sound engineering drives us to distraction? I, as a small example, cannot stand the slight catch in the man’s voice who says, “viewer discretion advised” before each and every episode of more mature (I definitely pronounced mah-TOOR in my head to sound fancier) shows on Hulu. It sets my teeth on edge every single time, which I feel bad about because, in my imagined backstory for him, he’s actually a very nice person. It’s me, not you Hulu Guy—though if you wanted to consider re-recording that bit I certainly wouldn’t complain.
Anyway, this is an overly long way of saying: Here’s an audiobook I’ve listened to and enjoyed for the way the author uses language and weaves a story AND for the way the reader brings that language to life and sends the story into my head. It’s an always miraculous combination that never ceases to bring me absolute joy.
I was trying to think if I’d ever read/listened to a book with a chronically ill main character. Beth in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, maybe? Or Colin in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden? Or possibly even Alicia in Horacio Quiroga’s “La almohada de plumas” (“The Feather Pillow”)? Oof. Not exactly an encouraging list. (Clearly I need to find some more books about chronically ill people!!) So I was pretty excited when I heard through the chronic illness Twitter-verse about Talia Hibbert’s book Get a Life, Chloe Brown. It seems like taking the easy way out to say that when I started listening to this book I immediately felt seen, but holy heating pads did I feel seen!
The book opens with Chloe Brown, a posh, chronically ill Black woman, nearly getting smooshed by an SUV driven by a drunk woman. When the EMTs arrive on the scene and ask Chloe if she’s okay she realizes that it “wouldn’t do to collapse…then she’d have to tell [the EMT] about all her little irregularities, and why they were nothing to worry about, and they’d both be here all day.” I mean, it would be cliché to say that I screamed when I heard this, but friends, I fucking screamed when I heard this! (Ditto for when we’re told her body is “highly temperamental,” and often vetoes things.) And also the part where she is “lying bodily on the floor and gulping like a dying fish,” but answers the question of if she’s ok with a bright, “Fine, thank you!” I could go on just listing ways in which Talia Hibbert expertly mixes humor and honesty about how it feels to move through the world as a person with chronic illness.
But maybe you’re not chronically ill and you’re wondering if you’d still enjoy this book. Well, first I’d encourage you to really interrogate that question and consider why you’d think that a romance novel with a chronically ill heroine could only be enjoyed by other chronically ill people, and then I’d tell you that hell yes there is so much to love about this book.
After her near-death-ish experience, Chloe decides to upend her regimented and orderly life by moving out of her family mansion and making a very orderly and regimented list of goals to help her (you guessed it!) get a life. She wants to do things like have meaningless sex and travel the world with only carry-on luggage and ride a motorcycle. Her chronic illness doesn’t exactly mesh well with these carefully laid plans, so she tries to keep that a secret from everyone except her family, which can sometimes make her seem standoffish and rude, especially to Redford “Red” Morgan, the tattooed, motorcycle driving, working class, hunk of a handyman who manages her building. Obviously it will come as no surprise that he and Chloe get off on very much the wrong foot and share a strong dislike for each other that is only rivaled by their strong attraction to each other. Red has his own past and his own hang ups that have led him to manage the building rather than pursue a career as an artist. He only paints at night in the solitude of his apartment seen by absolutely no one, except maybe Chloe who (entirely accidentally) spies on him as he exposes his bare chest. I mean, paintings. It’s definitely just the paintings she’s interested in.
That reminds me (Red’s chest, not his paintings) that you should know that this isn’t some chaste romance novel that walks you up to the bedroom door before slamming it in your face. Oh no, this one throws open the door and off the covers to reveal a LOT of sex-positive, woman-centered sexcapades, which are extremely STEAMY. (Just a heads up, as a woman of a Certain Age, it did take me awhile to get used to how freely Chloe throws around the word pussy in a positive context.)
In the audiobook, Adjoa Andoh does a beautiful job of voicing everyone from Chloe to Red to Chloe’s sisters to Chloe’s glamorous and snobby Jamaican grandmother. Her slightly gravelly voice that can slide easily from peppy squeak to annoyed growl grounds the story. It really is the perfect match for this delightfully charming, funny, acerbic, sweet, sexy, and wise book. And if when you finish this book you’re feeling bereft at having to say goodbye to both her voice and the characters, you can try diving back in via Hibbert’s next book Take a Hint, Dani Brown, which follows one of Chloe’s two younger sisters in her romantical entanglements. I haven’t listened to it yet, so please let me know what you think!
Maybe you’ve noticed that at no point in this review did I make excuses for listening to a romance novel or explain how it’s escapism. That’s because all novels are escapism, silly! They’re made up and that’s why we like them. And it all depends on what kind of world you like to escape into. For some people that’s horror. (Certainly not this people, though!) For others it’s romance. For still others it’s 19th century literature. Who the fuck cares? Which leads me to my second point: You’re not being graded on your book choices, so go ahead and listen to/read what works for you and makes you happy. Get a Life, Chloe Brown definitely did that for me.