When I picked up this book, I wasn’t sure if a romance set in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival would really be my thing because I’m not a theater person. But Walsh’s vivid descriptions of Ashland, Oregon, of the festival, and of her lead’s clashing career paths were so charming that I was transported. If you want a nice little romance to escape into, this might be the novel for you.
Emilie is an actor with more than a few career regrets who sees her season with the festival as a chance to finally get back on track professionally. She suffers from stage fright and once abandoned her theater dreams and initial acclaim for her work in order to follow her girlfriend, a fellow actor, on tour. She’s determined not to let anything stand in the way of her ambition again.
Arden is a lifelong Ashland resident, daughter of an actor and a director who left her to be raised by her grandparents while they pursued theater careers all over the world. She works in the local park, just like her late grandfather did. She dates actress who come for the festival and regularly gets her heart broken in the process.
Arden and Emilie are drawn to each other from the moment they meet in the park but agree that they should just be friends. Emilie doesn’t want a distraction and Arden doesn’t need another relationship with an expiration date. Over many months of rehearsals and performances, the two grow closer and closer, cheering each other on in their careers even as those ambitions threaten their bond.
The romance in this burns slow but I appreciated that. A lot of the focus is on their connection as dear friends, Emilie’s struggles to perform when her confidence is low, and Arden reconsidering the life she planned for herself and what her professional aims actually are. It’s engaging and fun.
The only thing I didn’t really like was Emilie’s roommate, a graduate student in psychology, who wants to use Emilie for her studies. While I’d buy an undergrad new to the field blurring personal and professional boundaries, by grad school a psych student should know better than to pressure a new roommate into quasi-therapy sessions for her research. Maybe this sort of thing would happen but it sounded unethical. It also seemed to be a way to reveal some of Emilie’s backstory and have her come to realizations. Luckily this roommate basically disappears from the book once she’s served that purpose.
Overall, it’s a fun romance. It made me want to go this festival, which I’d never had any interest in before. Set the Stage is worth a read for fans of romance or theater.
Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018 and is a contributor to the anthology Unspeakably Erotic, edited by D.L. King, and out now. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com