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Review | Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George

I am having difficulty achieving some semblance of coherence when it comes to this beautiful book. My feelings for it are threatening to overwhelm me on every level this morning. I didn't sleep last night. And I mean that literally. I didn't sleep a wink. Twice, I tried to force myself to do the right smart thing and wait to finish on the morrow. But my head and my heart would have none of it. They were both buzzing far too loudly to even think of sleep. I bought McKelle George's debut novel Speak Easy, Speak Love on the day it released based on three things: it has easily my favorite cover of the year (I swoon, I swoon over this cover), it was edited by my Martha (say no more), and it is a Roaring Twenties adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing (as Ms. George herself puts it—Shakespeare's most romantic comedy). I really feel like I could just leave it there, and that those of you in possession of a soul would immediately run to the bookstore (as one does) and set about doing yourselves the massive favor of devouring this story. In case any of you are forcibly housebound or bedridden (been there), I shall expand.

Benedick Scott is one hundred percent over it. He's leaving his posh prep school and his autocratic father once and for all and is bound for the only place (and people) that have ever really felt like home. Hey Nonny Nonny—the Long Island speakeasy run by the jovial (if rarely sober) Leo Stahr and his glittering daughter Hero—is home to a number of other rapscallions ever on the down and out. Chief among them are Benedick's best friend—the mercurial Prince—and Hey Nonny's star crooner—Maggie Hughes. What Benedick does not expect is to be followed into the night by his fellow trust fund kid Claude Blaine or to encounter one Miss Beatrice Clark—aspiring medical student and sometime boarding school reject. Beatrice, like Benedick, is in need of a home. Kicked out of boarding school just before graduation, she is determined nothing will stop her from getting into medical school and pursuing her dream of being a doctor. Beatrice has always been different from others, and she takes the unusual denizens of her Uncle Leo's home (and their various highly suspect and massively illegal activities) in absolute stride. And before any of the others realize it, Beatrice has made herself an indispensable member of the small group of outsiders desperately trying to keep the struggling speakeasy afloat.
Benedick Scott was on his way to freedom or profound failure or, if the usual order of things held up, both. Two chests, strapped closed and marked for delivery to an apartment in Manhattan, sat at the end of his bed. On his person he needed only his typewriter, slung over his shoulder in a battered case. He'd stuffed the case with socks to cushion any dinging, along with his shaving kit, a worn copy of Middlemarch, and thirty-four pages of typed future.
I read these opening lines aloud to Aaron as I began the book, and his eyes widened slightly, his head tipped knowingly, as he quietly bid me farewell and Godspeed. He knows. He knows because it's as though that first paragraph was tailor fit for me. After a handful more pages, I gave up trying to muffle my exclamations of delight. Speak Easy, Speak Love had clearly announced itself as an experience and I gave myself over to it entirely. McKelle George's writing is exquisite. Every line feels at once effortless and meticulously crafted, to the point that I, who never go slowly, was slowing down and savoring each rich turn of phrase. By the 100-page mark, I was beside myself in love with these characters. They were so dashing, I was afraid to let them out of my sight.

I am, admittedly, an enormous fan of Much Ado About Nothing. But as I read, I kept thinking to myself—she took the bones, yes. But this achingly gorgeous slip of magic and mirth is all hers. And I knew it from the moment I met Prince—there in the darkness, leaning against the tree, cigarette dangling, eyes flashing, waiting for Benedick. Prince is the early warning signal that beyond this point there be dragons. Dragons and heart-stopping jazz, inexplicable longing and the sharpest of tongues. The trio of romances in this tale are absolutely not for the faint of heart. What I mean by that is, they are so ineffably real and so elegantly delineated that I choked back thick and sudden tears on more than one occasion. The thing is—I had heard reviewers describe this book as "light" and "romantic" and "fun" and "witty." And it is all of those things. But make no mistake—just like its source material, it is so much more. So much more that I don't think those four descriptors would even make it into the top fifty terms I would use to describe it. What I'm saying is, I was nowhere near prepared for how consummate the storytelling would be. "For fans of Stephanie Perkins and Jenny Han," the blurb read. Yes. Okay. Sure. But I feel compelled to say that the caliber of writing and the emotional weight in this volume put me in mind of Megan Whalen Turner and Robin McKinley, which is to say wordsmiths in possession of the deftest of touches and the most expansive of souls.

For example:
Benedick opened his door and stood up, keeping one elbow on the doorframe, the other on the Ford's roof, shedding his exhaustion like a winter coat. His eyes brightened, and his pale, clammy skin managed to defy medicine and glow. "Have I got a story for you!"

And it was a story—in that it was not quite the truth.

But it wasn't a lie either.

Listening to him, Beatrice experienced the afternoon all over again, but this time there was no real danger. There was a boy who'd had a terrific idea that went a little off the rails and a girl who was a good sport and just the kind of sidekick you'd like to have along. Beatrice heard herself laugh when Benedick described her shooting off a man's hat, but it hadn't seemed that funny when it actually happened.

There was a sunniness in his words that somehow even disguised his appearance, erasing the boy shaking with exhaustion, flattening all his mercurial layers into one outfit of razzle-dazzle. But the razzle-dazzle was also real. That was the most baffling part of all. He was this, too.

She let him do it, not only because she came out looking all right in his story, not a clock-throwing ruin of a girl, but also because Benedick's talking about her as if she were already one of them made her one of them.

Words.

What a tricky, tangled science.
I am physically restraining myself from sharing more passages just like this one. Because honestly? This passage is just one of a thousand that left me gasping on the floor at their acuity. McKelle George has fleshed out my favorite relationships and forged new connections I couldn't have seen, but that felt right and real the moment they landed. Which brings me to John and to Maggie, who I find I can't even talk about just yet—so fresh and lasting are my emotions regarding them. Just know that I am not overstating things when I say that their respective arcs are arguably the most compelling and ethereal of all in this novel bursting at the seams with compelling and ethereal character arcs. Likewise, know that you ought to discover them for yourselves. Go find them. Find them all, and come back and tell me. And maybe by then I'll have summoned a bit more in the way of coherence. Until then, adieu.

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