cover image A Tender Thing

A Tender Thing

Emily Neuberger. Putnam, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-593-08487-8

Neuberger’s debut, a page-turning homage to 1950s Broadway, imagines a Midwestern girl realizing her dream to star in a musical. Eleanor O’Hanlon, 21, leaves her family’s Wisconsin pig farm to attend an open call for a Broadway show written by the composer/lyricist Don Mannheim (a thinly veiled Stephen Sondheim). Eleanor doesn’t get the part, but Mannheim casts her as the lead in his next project, A Tender Thing, which centers on a groundbreaking interracial love story. During the show’s trial run in Boston, Eleanor faces crowds of protesters bearing signs reading “save segregation” and is taunted by a reporter for kissing her black costar, Charles, on stage. Meanwhile, Eleanor falls for Don, not recognizing he’s gay, and gets caught up in the story of the play, believing she and Charles ought to be able to go out together in New York without attracting fury. While Neuberger’s descriptions of the racists Eleanor and Charles face too often feel swiped from central casting, she finds moments of depth when the actors discuss what it would mean to fulfill the play’s roles in real life. While uneven, Neuberger’s thoughtful tale succeeds at showing how art can both reflect and change how people see the world. Agent: Christy Fletcher, Fletcher & Co. (Apr.)