Book Review: Sweet Thing by Renee Carlino


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5 STARS
 
Music has the power to connect you to any time, place, or feeling within a matter of seconds. The lyrics. A melody. An instrument. Every nuance builds to create a unique story, and you can envision a whole world just by listening. Which is why I always fall in love with books that place music front and center. And it's one of the reasons why I fell so hard for Sweet Thing, a captivating novel that pulls at your heart strings and plays them for every note they've got.
Mia Kelly thinks she has it all figured out. She’s an Ivy League graduate, a classically trained pianist, and the beloved daughter of a sensible mother and offbeat father. Yet Mia has been stalling since graduation, torn between putting her business degree to use and exploring music, her true love. 
When her father unexpectedly dies, she decides to pick up the threads of his life while she figures out her own. Uprooting herself from Ann Arbor to New York City, Mia takes over her father’s café, a treasured neighbor­hood institution that plays host to undiscovered musicians and artists. She’s denied herself the thrilling and unpredictable life of a musician, but a chance encounter with Will, a sweet, gorgeous, and charming guitar­ist, offers her a glimpse of what could be. When Will becomes her friend and then her roommate, she does everything in her power to suppress her passions—for him, for music—but her father’s legacy slowly opens her heart to the possibility of something more.
Inspired by her own love for music, author Renee Carlino credits "Wash." by Bon Iver for helping her write half of the scenes in the book. Naturally, I had to compile my playlist for writing this review. It turned out to be a collection of songs referenced in the novel, songs that the author mentioned in blog posts, and a couple of inspired additions. Track 1, of course, was "Wash." The song is a wistful progression of piano, strings, and singer Justin Vernon's gentle falsetto...an indication of the emotional journey that Sweet Thing takes you on. After all, when we meet Mia, she's still grieving and trying to figure her life out. I pressed play, closed my eyes, and let the music transport me. These songs were my own musical bookmarks, little reminders of all my favorite parts.

As Vampire Weekend's spunky "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" starts playing, I think of Will. He is the quirky and eager, yet charming and attractive musician that happens to sit next to Mia on her flight to New York. He appears very different from her, but their connection is palpable.
"You know they say people who have stared death in the face are bonded for life?"
I laughed. "You're cute, Will."
"I was going for irresistible," he said with a brazen smirk.
Indie folk band Fleet Foxes is up next with "White Winter Hymnal". It has a mesmerizing combination of harmonies, acoustic guitar, and tambourines, a mellow organic sound that takes me back to Kell's Cafe and Mia's apartment. Kell's is "like a museum," with its photograph-covered walls and timeworn espresso machine, and the apartment is a cozy space with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and an old piano. I remember reading about these places and how, thanks to Carlino's writing, I got to see everything. From home to different parts of the city, every detail comes to life and you know exactly where you are.

As The Smiths' "Ask" starts to play next, it puts a huge grin on my face. I have to turn the volume way up, filling the room with its unmistakable cheerful bounce. I remember all the truly sweet and funny moments between Will and Mia.
"So if there's something you'd like to try...if there's something you'd like to try..." I turned to face him; he raised his eyebrows, looked right at me, and sang, "Ask me, I won't say no, how could I?"
Because the...fun?...really begins when Will becomes Mia's new roommate. One of my absolute favorite scenes is when they're dancing in the kitchen...to the glorious tune of 70's Bette Midler...while he cooks breakfast! (I'll have an order of Mama's French Toast, please...) This is the stuff swoons are made of.    
 
At the root of it all, though, why they get along so well...is the music. It's not only about loving music, but it's also about playing music together. They're both incredibly talented, and something about that connection is so strong. I think about this as the haunting introduction to Tori Amos's "Icicle" flows from the speakers next to me. It's from one of the first times that Will and Mia let loose and have a good ol' jam session.
"Play something for me," he said.
"I think I'm too drunk."
"That's the best time."
Mia has the ability to lose herself in a moment, in a song, in the piano keys that she expertly and intensely navigates...But there's always something that jerks her back. She always lets her fear and uncertainty get in the middle, and she especially lets that doubt get between her and Will. They can feel like an unfinished sentence or an action only done halfway through, and there are times when she just says the wrong thing. And, oh, do you hurt in those moments.
His smile had faded. It was the first time I saw a hint of sadness in his eyes.
But here's the thing...I get it. I get why she's the worst kind of stubborn. True story: A few years ago, I was working toward my own business degree when I decided to transfer to an art school! But making that decision wasn't as easy or as quick to do as some would assume. Everyone told me that business was the better, "safe" route. And for Mia, there's also a history with her parents and upbringing that keeps her from trusting the struggling-artist lifestyle. So, I get it, Mia.

Still, I'm not immune to wanting to grab the girl by her shoulders and shake some sense into her. She's often cruelly dismissive, which leads to. So. Many. If only's. The Cure's "Pictures of You" and Damien Rice's "Cheers Darlin" are the next tracks on my playlist, and they could definitely represent Will's frustration and disappointment. His, mine, it's the same... (What am I, darlin? The boy you can fear? Or your biggest mistake? Cheers darlin', here's to you and your lover man) 

You feel the weight of her resistance (and his restraint) every time they touch briefly or have time all alone. The little teases here and there are both divine and devastating. And their *steam* is the sneaky kind. Like during a particular bath scene that involves Will, Mia, and Van Morrison's "Sweet Thing."
"Can you help me?" I could feel heat creeping over my cheeks. Will's eyebrows arched and then he shot me a sexy smile. "No funny business."
Bob Dylan's voice and the rhythmic strumming of a guitar take over for Van Morrison, and "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" takes me back to one of the more profound parts in the book. There's a pretty big revelation, and it's utterly heartwrenching. I felt like breaking down right along with Mia, and I caught myself blinking away tears.
"You are your experiences and your fears and the love you let yourself feel. You are your degree and your talent and your passion."
Will, picking up the pieces in a way only he could, whisks Mia away for some "musical therapy." He brings out the musician in her. It's not simply about the attraction or the steam. I fully believe that they belong together. Even if...things...keep getting in the way. Because of this, the next song on the playlist is a piano piece called "All Of Me." And this song is for Jenny, one of the many vibrant and spirited characters this book is rich with. Jenny is Mia's best friend and the one who keeps it real when Mia needs it most. She loves wildly and speaks honestly. At a certain event, Will and Mia play the piano together for Jenny, and it's like all the stars align.
I gestured for him to sit on the bench. "Let's have some fun."
My favorite track on this playlist is on now, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash together in "Girl From North Country". The song makes an appearance in a part of the book that's about healing and understanding, which are both significant to Mia's journey. The scene is stunningly tender and real.
"You are the most guarded person I have ever met, yet everything you feel is right there on your face and you don't even know it.
"Delicate" by Damien Rice begins to play next and my jaw immediately tenses. It's not mentioned directly in the book, but Mia plays Damien Rice during a close encounter with Will. I imagine this song playing at some point in their evening, and it's another one that Will could sing directly to Mia, after she pulls away yet again. (And why do you sing Hallelujah if it means nothing to you, why do you sing with me at all?) *inhale deeply* *exhale slowly* It's maddening.
I had never wanted anyone so badly- my body ached for him as I sat on my floor wondering how I could make things right.
Coincidentally, Track 17 on my playlist and Track (Chapter) 17 in the book line up perfectly. The next song on my playlist is "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" by Willie Nelson, and the chapter is titled Angels' Wings. At that point, Mia suffers yet another loss, and Willie's sad voice parallels the sad mess that she is in.
I went to the kitchen and opened a bottle of wine, attempting to numb the pain. Of course, half a bottle down, and nothing was numb. 
Then, once more, Will comes to pick up the pieces in a way that only he could. He's her fallen angel, waiting to be let into heaven. And finally...YES...she lets him in. Every tease, every intimate moment cut short...Mia gives in at last, and it's pretty damn satisfying.
His hands were gentle but determined, like when he played music. Never second-guessing himself, he just moved purely from feeling.
The satisfaction, however, is short-lived. I'm reminded of this as Jeff Buckley's pained version of "Satisfied Mind" begins to play. The guitar in this version has edge to it, and Buckley sounds more troubled than satisfied. Then, it fades into The National's mournful "About Today." In the last chapters of the book, there is pain, loneliness, regret...I was completely wrapped up in all of it. For Mia, her self-discovery was a slow process. Mia and Will 's romance was also an achingly slow-building one. But I never wanted to give up on reading or stop turning the pages. These were things that couldn't be rushed, and the pace felt just right.

And why is all of the up-and-down and the back-and-forth so important? As much as I was praying that lost Mia would find her way, I was rooting just as hard for Will. He also reaches a point in his life where he needs to "figure it out" and you want so badly for him to be happy! It just takes patience. And sweet, determined Will has got plenty of it. Like the light at the end of the tunnel, I've placed "My Timing Is Off" by Eels towards the end of the playlist. Even though a man is singing about the time and situation not being right for the woman he loves, there's just something inherently hopeful about the song and its upbeat drums and electric guitar. He just had faith, that one day, she would be ready. (Read the lyrics and you know it...this is Will.)
To love is brave, and Will was the bravest person I knew.
Finally, my playlist reaches its final track, and "Satisfied Mind" starts playing again, this time sung by Johnny Cash. This version is much more soothing and peaceful. Now...NOW...I can be truly satisfied. The ending of this book made my jaw drop, my hand cover my mouth, and my eyes tear up. Will Ryan. Made. Me. Melt. Oh, how I melted. That one scene convinced me that the slow burn was worth it! It was somehow surprising, yet what I was yearning for all along!

I loved this book. Sweet Thing sweeps you away to New York, delivers soul-stirring music and passion, and makes you fall in love...hard, madly, deeply. It's the small moments and the details. And even though your heart breaks a few times along the way, the journey is worth it thanks to hope and a dream. Sweet Thing is not just a love story, but a story about overcoming fear and loss...and figuring things out.

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MY COMPLETE "SWEET THING" PLAYLIST

Track 1: Bon Iver - Wash.
Track 2: Vampire Weekend - Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa
Track 3: Fleet Foxes - White Winter Hymnal
Track 4: The Smiths - Ask
Track 5: Better Midler - Do You Want To Dance
Track 6: Tori Amos - Icicle
Track 7: The Cure - Pictures Of You
Track 8: Damien Rice - Cheers Darlin'
Track 9: Van Morrison - Sweet Thing
Track 10: Bob Dylan - You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go
Track 11: Miley Cyrus - You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Don't judge, just listen!)
Track 12: Jon Schmidt - All Of Me
Track 13: Nick Drake - Northern Sky
Track 14: Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash - Girl From North Country
Track 15: Damien Rice - Delicate 
Track 16: The Rolling Stones - Wild Horses
Track 17: Willie Nelson - Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground
Track 18: Jeff Buckley - Satisfied Mind
Track 19: The National - About Today
Track 20: Eels - My Timing Is Off
Track 21: Johnny Cash - Satisfied Mind
Track 22: Bon Iver - Wash. (St. South Remix) 
 
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MORE FROM RENEE CARLINO
| Sweet Little Thing (Novella) | My Review |
| After Sweet Little Thing: Author Interview |

| Nowhere but Here (Standalone) | My Review + Playlist |