I had scarcely begun reading Breathless (a most non-descriptive title) when I felt that it was going to be a terrific book. My instincts were right. It’s funny. It’s touching. It’s great.
Daniel Walker is a winning lawyer and an up-and-coming politician. His principal supporter asks him to take on the task of overturning an injunction against the Shivaree Social Club in his hometown of Shivaree, Georgia. The Shivaree Social Club is a brothel which is patronized by prosperous gentlemen from nearby Atlanta as well as the local residents.
The injunction has primarily been the result of the efforts of Lily Morgan, the town’s librarian. She partially blames her divorce on her ex-husband Jason’s visits to the Social Club’s “painted women.” After the divorce, which was based on perjured testimony accusing her of adultery, Lily’s reputation has been ruined.
Lily refuses to cave in to the small town’s expectations. She plays loud music on her Victrola, wears pink even though she has red hair, and refuses to remove “dirty books” (such as Candide) from the library shelves. Her only friends are Rosie, the owner of the town’s café, and Amos, a young mentally retarded man.
Lily is horrified to learn that Daniel Walker is back in town. He was the lawyer who represented Jason in the divorce action and ruined her.
Daniel represented his best friend and believed his accusations against his wife. Now, however, Daniel is staying with a friend next door to Lily, and as he observes her, he gradually begins to doubt that Lily could be guilty. He explains his position: he was just doing his job.
Lily in turn begins to find Daniel a most attractive (and even supportive) man.
The judge rules that a referendum be held on whether the Social Club should remain open. Lily finds unexpected support in the judge’s wife in her crusade to close down the Shivaree Social Club once and for all. Because in 1905, prostitution is a subject no “ladies of refinement” would be willing to discuss, they base their campaign on the principle of temperance. Lily’s temperance work has an unforeseen bonus of helping to repair her reputation.
Because women do not have the right to vote, it is necessary for them to convince the men to vote against the continued operation of the Social Club. In a move reminiscent of the plot of Lysistrata, the women of the town go on strike.
But before the referendum can be held, the murder of one of the girls at the Social Club brings new attention to the Club. The subsequent arrest of Amos for the crime will bring Lily and Daniel into an unexpected alliance.
This plot summary is a bit longer than those I write for most books because Breathless has more than most. For wannabe romance writers, this could be a textbook case of how to do it right. Every element of the book works.
This is a particularly well-plotted story. All the loose ends that might dangle in less well-written books are tied: why Jason married Lily when he resented doing so, why Daniel supported and believed Jason without question, why Lily has remained in Shivaree after the scandal. The plot conflict, moreover, is realistic. The author hasn’t dragged a single point of conflict between Lily and Daniel to the breaking point but rather has new, reasonable conflict arise between the two as their relationship develops.
The character development is excellent. The characters, main and secondary, are multi-dimensional and believable. The dialogue is sharp and engaging and frequently funny. Characters are revealed through both their words and their actions. (I loved Lily’s lines in the scene where she refuses to issue Daniel a library card.)
A good part of the book’s success lies in the characters of Daniel and Lily. Even though they are on diametrically opposite sides, their motivations rest on their experiences, and both have a certain degree of right on their side. Readers will fall in love with both of them as they fall for each other.
On a personal note, how wonderful it is to finally read about a librarian who isn’t the model of everything uptight and prim.
“But just about everybody in town agreed on two things: Lily Morgan was a scandalous woman, and Lily Morgan just didn’t act like a librarian.”
Lily, stand up and take a bow. Librarians everywhere have been waiting for you for a long time!
By TRR standards Breathless is a definite keeper and deserves five hearts. I wish I could give it more. This is beyond any doubt one of the best romances of 1999. Don’t miss it.