by Philip K. Jason
“Like writers of old,” says novelist Tina Murray, “I have worked in various types of jobs, from clerk to actress, real estate pro to assistant professor. I was a teaching assistant in art education at FSU while pursuing my doctorate. I have seen the world — and people — from many different points of view.”
She has also seen a lot of Naples. Murray lived here as a child in the late 1960s, when her dad set up a business as a consulting electrical and mechanical engineer. She returned to Naples in between periods during which she lived in other parts of the United States, including Arizona, California, New York, and Indiana. She became a full-time resident of Naples again about eight years ago.
Murray is a big fan of writers’ groups and writers’ conferences. She insists that “networking with other writers has been tremendously important to me. Invariably, these days, when anyone asks me how to become a writer, I immediately advise them — after first telling them they must write, of course — to attend writers’ conference and join writers’ groups. That’s what worked for me. I met one of my publishers, Robert Gelinas, through the Florida Writers Association. This led directly to the publication of my debut novel.” Murray has also benefited from activities of the Southwest Florida Romance Writers, Gulf Coast Writers, and the now-defunct Lifelong Writers at USF. She attended the Sanibel Writers Conference for the first time in this year, and she also signed copies of her new book at the Florida Voices Book Fair in Gainesville.
This first book from Tina Murray is an unmitigated and unabashed romance. A Chance to Say Yes (from Archebooks Publishing) features a successful film actor, Heston Demming, who has returned to his home town of Naples with two conflicting motives. One motive is to lord his success over those who doubted him or who thought he’d never amount to anything. The other is to make amends with those he might have hurt along the way. Demming is ready for full-blast enjoyment of his celebrity and wealth, especially his Port Royal mansion and magnificent yacht. At that same time, maturity has brought him emptiness and guilt. He has been a reckless, self-centered careerist. He has been a boozer and a remote parent who has made several poor choices that have led him into doomed relationships. Demming wishes to right his moral compass.
Murray has whipped up more than a sufficient or credible amount of unhappy, unpleasant, mean-spirited women to offset the sweet and genuinely caring nature of her heroine, Poppy Craft-Talbot. There is Demming’s first wife, Inez Vega (the powerhouse realtor), with whom he shares an adolescent son, Franco – though Inez seems to have primary custody as well as Franco’s loyalty. There is his second wife, Maude (the model), with whom Demming shares a young daughter, Winnie. And there is his sometime mistress, Montserrat (the adventurous travel writer), with whom he shares nothing but hot sex. Each has her distinctive kind of good looks, bitchiness, shallowness, and selfishness. Each has her own style of manipulation. Poor Heston Demming! Oh yeah, there is one more evil woman, Poppy’s supposed best friend and confidant, Sasha Bassett, who turns out to be a traitor.
Poppy was Heston’s childhood playmate and high school sweetheart. Though hurt by the abrupt end to their youthful romance, she has carried a flame for him and is uncertain about what to expect from his return to Naples. The novel plays out the tentative steps that each takes toward the other and the complications of negotiating Heston’s other relationships, as well as a series of sinister subplots. Meanwhile, Poppy’s own marriage is in decline, though she is hesitant to renege on her vows.
Murray sets a large cast of characters in motion, including Inez’s husband and stepson; Poppy’s business partner in her art gallery; and Cedric Spicer, an eccentric and unscrupulous artist.
For many readers, the real hero of the story will be the setting – Naples itself. The characters and action weave through a good part of our town. Poppy’s gallery is at The Village on Venetian Bay, while she lives in a Vanderbilt Beach high-rise condo. Fifth Street South features prominently, as do Port Royal, Pelican Bay, (pre-renovation) Waterside Shops, and other familiar areas. Heston grew up in the Lake Park community. Sasha, who has a catering business, lives in “a dreary little apartment in Coco Palms.” I go out of my way to discover novels that use Naples as their setting, and none that I’ve so far discovered employs Naples as expansively and evocatively as does A Chance to Say Yes.
Though this intriguing romance may have one too many nasty women, Murray has a facility with description of place and action and of the physiques and psychology (often perverse) of her characters that makes for an entertaining read. There are ample plot complications and questions hanging in the air that push the reader forward, turning the pages. And how goes the romance between Poppy and Heston? Well, that’s what you’ll have to read A Chance to Say Yes to find out.