Before I write anything about this novel not being as obvious a beyond-5* book as have, so far, been all the author’s novels I’ve read, I want to make it clear that it’s nevertheless a tremendously enjoyable read. Had it been written by anyone else, I’d be pouring all my joy in this review. It is smart, balanced, at times delightful, well-paced. As always with E. J. Noyes, it is also extremely well-written, not ostentatiously so, it just is.
That said, this is, I believe, the first time a book written by E. J. Noyes doesn’t leave me breathless (if Abby Craden narrates it, the audiobook might, however [edit: to quote Noyes on Twitter, I’m in luck with the audiobook, and I can’t wait! edit2: the audiobook will be released on May 19th]).
Jane Smith has been working for Theda for eight years, eight years of crushing on her hot boss, Morgan Ashworth. Little does she know that Morgan a) fancies her too and b) is not just her boss, she’s the head of Death’s Minions, responsible for getting humans to decide how they want to spend their afterlife. Morgan is not only really good at her job – because she’s so kind and empathetic –, she’s also very competitive and is not taking well to the fact that one of her colleagues is on the verge of winning the Minion of the Year award. When Morgan has to approach Jane about her own questionnaire, Jane convinces her to make a deal: she’ll sign the papers if Morgan helps her with her bucket list, from roller coasters in various countries to drinking Dom Pérignon with her mother. And sleeping with her boss, an item Jane wasn’t fully prepared for Morgan to find out about.
Reaping the Benefits has a bittersweet comedic quality to it, in the lighter vein of Turbulence and If the Shoe Fits – keeping in mind that with Noyes, light doesn’t exactly equal fluffy. While still very clearly a Noyes novel, this one differs from what she usually writes. First of all – and she’s been very open about how hard it has been for her –, this is Noyes’ first book written in third person. I don’t usually care whether a book is first or third person, but Noyes’ first person is so strong that it’s a real change and, apparently, a real challenge. I like an author who takes risks, and when the author is so talented, I’m more than willing to take risks with them. My attention was unfortunately very focused on that third person thing, and I blame social media for that (and the Acknowledgements page). If I hadn’t known Noyes had struggled with it, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. At least not enough for it to warrant so many words in my review.
The other detour she takes with this novel is into paranormal. I loved that. I loved that it felt so paradoxically normal. One thing that surprised me, coming from Noyes, is how much miscommunication there is between Morgan and Jane. Jane is so convinced Morgan can’t really be interested in her that she keeps making assumptions, whereas Morgan is terrified of falling again for a mortal woman and the hurt that would inevitably follow. These are classic tropes, and they can often become annoying. Sometimes I feel like taking the characters by their shoulders and shaking them, yelling at them “You’re adults! Talk to each other!”. I have to admit, it happened once or twice here.
That’s probably my main criticism. Other than that, I loved Morgan’s story, I loved Cici aka Death, I loved the tedious administrative stuff and the empathy Morgan keeps showing. I loved the idea of afterlife questionnaires, Morgan’s constant hunger, Jane’s sweet nature, her relationship with her mother, her willingness to understand and support Morgan. I loved that Morgan is a tease at times, while being so deeply kind. It’s her kindness Jane finds most attractive, not the incredibly sexy body she’s occupying. She’s attracted to the person Morgan really is, not the shell. That’s another point I found fascinating, how Morgan feels about her present body, the anxiety it brings her sometimes. If I had to pinpoint my two favourite things in Noyes’ writing, it would be the way she paints chemistry and how her character often grapple with who they are, in what might seem sometimes minor ways but are in fact the essence of who they are. That’s what makes them so real, so relatable, even when they’re so far from the reader’s real life, even when they’re Death’s right-hand person.
In my eyes, there’s no such thing as a minor Noyes novel. And no, that’s not just me fangirling. I’ve written it before and I’ll probably write it again many times, E. J. Noyes is one of the best writers at the moment. Therefore, while this latest book might not be as extraordinary as her previous ones, it’s still way above many I’ve read over the years. Which makes it a 5* for me. If you think it’s strange that I would give it the same rating as her other books, remember that, for me, those were beyond 5* and I’m still looking for a way to make that appear, at least on my blog. I can’t make up my mind on how to call that very special category. Anyway, if it makes you feel better to think of this as a 4.5*, be my guest. Call me stubborn, but I am not giving Noyes anything under 5*, unless she writes an average or bad book. That hasn’t happened yet.