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The View Was Exhausting
By Onjuli Datta
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"The complex, Hollywood love story we've all been waiting for—I couldn't get enough."—Emily Henry, #1 New York Times bestselling author of People We Meet on Vacation
Faking a love story is a whole lot easier than being in love . . .
The world can see that international A-list actress Whitman ("Win") Tagore and jet-setting playboy Leo Milanowski are made for each other. Their kisses start Twitter trends and their fights break the internet. From red carpet appearances to Met Gala mishaps, their on-again, off-again romance has titillated the public and the press for almost a decade. But it's all a lie.
As a woman of color, Win knows the Hollywood deck is stacked against her, so she's perfected the art of controlling her public persona. Whenever she nears scandal, she calls in Leo, with his endearingly reckless attitude, for a staged date. Each public display of affection shifts the headlines back in Win's favor, and Leo uses the good press to draw attention away from his dysfunctional family.
Pretending to be in a passionate romance is one thing, but Win knows that a real relationship would lead to nothing but trouble. So instead they settle for friendship, with a side of sky-rocketing chemistry. Except this time, on the French Riviera, something is off. A shocking secret in Leo's past sets Win's personal and professional lives on a catastrophic collision course. Behind the scenes of their yacht-trips and PDA, the world's favorite couple is at each other's throats. Now they must finally confront the many truths and lies of their relationship, and Win is forced to consider what is more important: a rising career, or a risky shot at real love?
The View Was Exhausting is a funny, wickedly observant modern love story set against the backdrop of exotic locales and the realities of being a woman of color in a world run by men.
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Win went down to meet Leo herself, in the lobby of La Réserve on the first day. He was sitting on his suitcase, one hand in his pocket. White T-shirt and jeans, brown leather shoes. He looked patient.
"Hello," Win said.
Leo smiled and raised his eyebrows in that old, familiar way. He had buzzed his hair short since she'd last seen him. He stood up, reaching for her, and she said, "Oh, there's no cameras here, it's okay."
He held his hands up in surrender, then leaned back and grinned. "You look good."
It was quiet in the lobby. The green and gold light drifted around them, salt in the air and wildflowers poised in the still afternoon while light-footed staff flitted about pretending not to have noticed them. Win had forgotten what it was like to stand under Leo's fixed gaze. She was used to attention, but in a chaotic, excitable way; flashes and screams and outpourings of emotion. Leo's attention had focus and purpose, like a calm hand on her shoulder.
She still felt shaken, fragile from jet lag and the flight itself. There had been turbulence over the Atlantic, and although it was a red-eye, no one had slept. Win spent most of it trying to focus on scripts and avoiding conversation with her publicist. People's phones kept lighting up in the gloom around her. She had pretended not to know that all of the messages were about her.
When they finally landed and made it to Saint-Tropez in the early morning, she still felt too unsettled to sleep. She'd spent the better half of the day on her laptop in bed, reading emails and doing her best not to go online. She looked out the window at the view only once; some fans had strung up a huge banner angled toward her suite, ON T'ADORE WHITMAN in pink glitter paint on a bedsheet. Several fresh bouquets were sent to the room with sympathetic messages from onlookers and industry acquaintances. In the afternoon her makeup team arrived, and then there were phone calls and couture dresses sent by hopeful designers, and the hum of the press outside her window, and somewhere, quietly, there was Leo, making his way from Berlin to the hotel Win's people had picked out. It lay high up in the cliffs, lavish, private, and delighted to have them.
"I'm sorry for the short notice," Win said, and then: "You cut your hair."
He ran a hand back over the buzz cut. It was almost startling to see Leo without the wild buffer of his hair. It brought all the lines of his face into high relief.
Win's publicist, Marie, had once described Leo's face as "well made." Severe bone structure, a satisfied mouth, those clear, dark eyes. He was tall and his silhouette was clean, and he moved like he was on his way to claim something and in no rush to get there.
"I thought it might add something to the story," he said.
They looked each other up and down. In the rush of media attention and damage control, she'd forgotten to prepare herself for seeing Leo again, for the first time in eighteen months or longer. He looked as good as he always did—older, perhaps, without the hair.
"You can touch it if you want," he said.
Win reached out and thumbed over his skull, from his temple to behind his ear. To her surprise it felt soft, the shorn hair running in smooth lines, like the coat of an animal. She ran her fingers back up against the grain.
Her assistant, Emil, came hurrying over to them from the check-in desk, pressing a key card into Leo's hand and throwing a look over his shoulder like he was being hunted.
"We should get moving. They spotted Leo coming in."
Win looked away from Leo, past the staff and security scurrying back and forth, toward the glass doors of the lobby. She couldn't see anything from this angle, and the hotel would try to keep paparazzi off their grounds, but she could hear it: a low rumble of excitement and chatter competing with the sound of the ocean. It was almost sunset. They were going to be late.
Win turned back to Leo. "Are you ready?"
"Yeah, I've been practicing in the car." Leo cleared his throat, letting his voice drop low, frowning sternly. "No comment. No comment. Yes, the sex is amazing."
Win laughed. "Your delivery needs work."
The car windows were tinted, and the doors were locked before the SUV peeled out through the hotel gates. In the waiting crowd of photographers there was a frantic struggle to get the best view. The trick was to let them catch a glimpse of him without revealing too much. It wouldn't look good to hand them Leo on a plate right away; there had to be at least one secret date first, like they were trying to keep it quiet. The rumors had to start as whispers, before they orchestrated a storm.
The SUV was obvious enough, pulling out of the drive, and they picked up a fast tail of paparazzi. Some followed in cars, others on motorbikes, trying to swerve up the side of the car, one man steering and a second brandishing the camera. Emil sat in the front seat, arguing in French with the driver about the best route with an arm poised, rapier-like, as if he wanted to take hold of the wheel. Leo sprawled next to Win in the back with one big hand splayed out on the seat between them, laughing a little when the car lurched sideways to avoid an approaching scooter.
Win watched him, mouth curling up despite herself. "You okay?"
"Fine," Leo said. "I'd forgotten what your life was like."
"They're here for you, too."
"Nah, they're not," Leo said, but he looked pleased, switched on, and Win didn't worry too much about him losing his cool. Leo was used to attention, as well.
Win checked her emails again. There was still no word from Patrick. Up until two days ago her agent had contacted her almost hourly, delivering an endless stream of updates and negotiations from Paramount. Less than a week ago he had messaged her: This could be the big one, Whitman. Since Nathan Spencer's public meltdown, there had been nothing but vague reassurances, platitudes that were far from comforting.
Marie had sent through the schedule for Win and Leo's orchestrated summer fling. All across the Riviera preparations were being made for them: white cloths thrown over tables, vineyard walkways raked clean, wilting roses and oleander clipped back from every trellis. The hotel had ordered a crate of Win's favorite Sancerre and the expensive whisky people thought Leo liked. On the weekend they would attend the Zacharias Chavanne party, and the whole time they would play happy and in love, making it clear that Win wasn't heartbroken, until the summer was over and people had forgotten that she'd dated Nathan Spencer at all, let alone their catastrophic breakup. With Leo next to her, it would be obvious that Nathan was just a blip, a fleeting distraction, nothing compared to the tumultuous, on-again, off-again love affair of Whitman Tagore and Leo Milanowski.
There wasn't much dignity in faking a relationship, and somehow even less so with Leo. He was too familiar with the industry; he liked fooling people too much; he'd known Win through all of her breakneck early twenties, and every time he looked at her it was like he was remembering them. But there wasn't time for shame. It had ceased to surprise Win that people cared about what she did off-screen, and with whom she did it. She couldn't just let her work stand for itself. She had to prove herself an asset, someone people would be excited to watch. As Marie had always said, real or fake was not the point. People just wanted to be entertained.
So it felt good to have a plan, to have all the players in place. The car swerved again as an overtaking SUV nudged too close to them, its driver trying to catch a shot through their windshield as it passed. Leo let out a rough bark of a laugh.
"Dating you is an extreme sport," he told her. "You should sell tickets."
"It's not always this crazy."
Leo gave her a look that she remembered deep in her bones and said, "Liar."
By the time they got to the planned coastal spot, there were only four cars still with them. It made it easier to pretend that they were alone, out for an evening stroll on the beach and apparently oblivious to the photographers lining the cliffs. Leo took her hand as they set out over the rocks, his face solemn and tender as if Win were a wounded bird he had rescued. There was a flutter of camera shutters as their hands met.
At this time of year, the Côte d'Azur was a smooth wash of jewel tones, the deep, smoky blue of seaside air, the ocean spread out like a glossy carpet, the honeycomb of cliffs and pastel-painted houses high above in the tangle of greenery. The sand was pale and silvery, warm to the touch when Win kicked off her heels, even as dusk caught fire across the water and the sun began to set. The view was exhausting.
"We've been to Saint-Tropez before, right?" Leo asked.
It took Win a moment to remember it: five years ago. A rival had beaten her to a role and unleashed a tide of rumors that Win was in a jealous rage over it; Win had needed to prove she had her mind on other things. She and Leo had spent most of the trip on a yacht anchored several bays over. She raised her hand without thinking, skimming across Leo's shoulders, warm through his crisp shirt.
"You got so badly sunburned."
She could feel his shoulder blades shifting as he walked. There was something feline about him sometimes, rangy and strong like a big cat. He'd told her once that Thea, his stepmother, had called him Leo the Lion as a child.
"Penny for your thoughts," Leo said.
"I get a higher asking price these days," Win told him. Leo smiled and looked out to the ocean, sliding his hands into his pockets. It was always harder, if they hadn't seen each other in a while, to renegotiate the boundaries of touch. It took Leo longer to settle into it, to remember that he was allowed to pull her close if he wanted. She leaned against his shoulder and he took the hint, drawing her in with an arm around her waist.
"Tell me how you've been, anyway," he said. "Aside from the asshole ex-boyfriend."
Win flinched. "Leo."
"I said aside from him."
Her jaw clenched. She didn't want to think about Nathan. She'd spent the last two days thinking about anything else—Leo, Saint-Tropez, her upcoming press tour, the deal with Paramount. Every now and then in the back of her head, she heard Nathan's drawling voice. It's not as fun as you'd think, being with the most famous woman in the world. Imagine screwing a dominatrix without the sex. Eventually you're just always getting whipped and never getting off.
"Whitman," Leo said, and Win drew a breath.
"Fine," she said. "Work's good. I'm pretty busy, I don't think I'll get a vacation this year, but—"
"This doesn't count as a vacation?"
Win tilted her head up to the cliffs, the glint of sunlight on lenses. The photographers would get only candid shots, zoomed in from a distance, occasionally blurry or hidden by outcrops of rock and greenery—but the buzz would be enough, and Marie had already planned phase two for tomorrow. A flashbulb lit up as they both watched, like a signal from a far-off island: Hello.
"Don't look at them," Win said.
Leo turned back to her. "I take your point."
"Thanks for coming so fast," Win said. "I wasn't even sure you'd be in Europe."
"Berlin," Leo confirmed. They had to climb over a section of beach partially blocked by rockfall. Leo jumped lightly down and reached back to catch her hand, guiding Win over uncertain ground. Click, click, click.
"Raving?" Win asked.
"Meeting with some gallery owners," Leo said, then admitted, "which is basically the same thing there."
"Are you finally starting on the studio? I thought you wanted to set it up in New York."
"Oh, I don't know," Leo said, pressing two knuckles against his eyebrow. "I've thought about New York, but maybe somewhere on the West Coast…My dad's been asking me to look at some design plans for a new boutique place in Austin he's working on. He wants me to ship him the usual statement pieces for the lobby, you know, something he can pretend is avant-garde."
Six years ago Win had spent an afternoon with Leo trailing through a series of galleries in Miami, while Leo picked out paintings he thought would help revamp one of his dad's resorts. Leo had been determined in a way that was unusual for him. He put together a hefty list, with suggested pairings, color palettes, and ways to highlight the artists. Four days later Leo showed her the email he'd received in response, a thank-you from an assistant on his dad's design team, except she had forgotten to cut out the rest of the thread before forwarding it to Leo. His father had written: Pick a couple of the fancier ones and tell Leonard thanks.
"But here I am," Leo said, and they paused on the sand, holding each other's hands and gazing into each other's eyes. Leo's face was satisfied, like he'd designed the romantic moment himself. Win supposed he'd helped. "You saved me. Here's our stop," he added, and nodded at the chalk X Marie had marked for them on a large rock. They tumbled down together, laughing and tangling their limbs around each other in case anyone was recording video—someone probably was—until they were sitting side by side, staring out at the pink sunlight on the bay.
"I hadn't heard from you for a while," Leo said.
"I know, I'm sorry," Win said. There had been only a handful of messages over the last year, reaching quickly for him as though he were a friend she passed in the street with no time to talk, nodding without breaking stride. Normally they didn't leave it so long between seeing each other, but the past year had ripped past without Win even realizing it. Her projects had been back-to-back, and in between she was grappling with Nathan, trying to appease a man who'd begun to resent her. The wind caught at her hair, and Leo smoothed it back behind her ear. She smiled up at him. "What did I miss?"
"Ah, the usual." Leo glanced to the side, rubbing his nose with one square knuckle. "Charity galas, gallery openings. I passed out in a sweat lodge. Had visions of an archangel coming to rescue me, except she was Indian? And had this really rough London accent? Banging body, though—"
Win raised her hand to smack him on the arm, cackling, and he caught it, drawing it toward him.
"Actually, this is good timing for me. Gum's been threatening to fly out for a boys' weekend, and I was running out of excuses." He toyed with her fingers like he was remembering them, rough fingertips tracing over her manicured nails.
Geoffrey Milanowski was Leo's suit-wearing, chain-smoking older brother. He'd taken to corporate heirdom more eagerly than Leo and disgraced himself several times in the process. Gum—as Leo insisted on calling him—spent most of his time in New York, sleeping in his clothes and squinting at paperwork he didn't understand. He had a string of one-sided professional feuds, a perennially unfinished MBA, and very few friends. Gum wasn't a household name like Leo, but he was well-known enough that if a cop pulled him over on Route 101 and failed him on a breathalyzer test, the world would hear about it. And had.
"I love the guy, but Dad will just accuse me of enabling him again. I can always tell when he wants to go on a bender. I haven't seen you for six months, mon frère, it's time to blow off some steam."
"Six months, really?"
"He worries about me," Leo said. "If I don't reply to one message, it's all Leonard, you've become a recluse!"
Leo put on a special Manhattan whine to imitate his brother. Leo himself had the sort of voice you couldn't put your finger on, because he'd lived between countries for most of his life and never settled into a standardized accent. He sounded like a Londoner and a Brooklynite and a cosmopolitan French prince all at once; it was part of why his public appeal was equally strong in Europe and America. That and the cheekbones.
Win curled her fingers against Leo's palm. Behind them she could hear the faint, far-off cries of a paparazzo calling their names. "Put your jacket on me?"
Leo shrugged his battered leather jacket off and settled it around Win's shoulders. It smelled like his cologne, and like airplanes, and a little like coffee. She looked up, and Leo was looking back at her. The air was still warm from the day's pounding sun, but it was evening now, and she could feel Leo along her side, at all the places their skin almost touched. His jacket was warm, too, like she'd stepped into the heat of his body.
"We're not doing the kiss until tomorrow," she said.
Leo didn't laugh, as she'd thought he might. He reached up and touched her cheek, long fingers sliding gently over her jawline. She didn't speak. The photos would be better if she didn't. He tapped two fingers against her mouth and said, "Understood."
They watched the last gulls of the evening careen through the sky. Marie texted Win when she was sure enough photos had been taken, and they climbed back to the waiting cars.
"Any word from Paramount?" she asked Emil, once they were safely behind the tinted windows.
He shook his head, fingers flying over his phone screen; he was coordinating with the team at Chanel, with whom Win had just signed a contract to head up their next campaign. Win didn't press further. It always pained Emil to be the bearer of bad news.
Perhaps they would never hear about the role again. The film she and Patrick had been fighting for was a new adaptation of The Sun Also Rises. Win was in the running to play the female lead. It was an intense prestige project, with an electrifying script and big-name director attached, and the plot itself refocused on her character's storyline. Her dialogue simmered, and Win had wanted the role immediately. But the movie was also Oscar-bait, and the producers were known for their skittishness. They were already nervous about the idea of casting a British Indian woman in the lead, and the additional threat of a scandal would have them scurrying from her as fast as they could. Now Nathan had placed Win at the center of the ugliest celebrity breakup of the summer.
But, Win reminded herself, nothing had come of it yet. She hadn't been axed; no word from Patrick meant he was still working on it, and she was determined to do everything she could to alleviate Nathan's damage. With Leo on her arm, it was simple enough to pull focus. Nobody could resist the glamour of a love story. Their trip to Saint-Tropez was proof, to the producers and to the world, that Nathan's dramas were all of his own making and that Win had long since moved on.
Win and Leo shared a cigarette on the way back to La Réserve, a snake's tail of black SUVs riding along in their wake. Emil kept himself busy and pretended unconvincingly not to notice the smoke.
Win said, "Don't tell Marie."
"I'm sure her informants have already let her know," Leo said.
"I resent that, Leo," Emil said. "I haven't seen a thing."
Emil had wanted to be an actor, he once told Win, and played the newspaper boy in his college production of A Streetcar Named Desire. He spent the first half of the run happily categorizing the props, talking down their Stanley from the edge of despair after a costar called him "Marlon Brando with eczema," and responding to a determined missive from the dean to cut the nudity, and realized that he was much happier offstage. He handed his part over to his boyfriend and never looked back.
The professionals outside La Réserve had been joined by starstruck French teenagers, screaming Leo's name and holding up their phones with shaking hands. Win and Leo played tipsy and flirty, as though they'd been drinking champagne in the car, and Leo waved at a couple of fans with his arm around Win's shoulders, drawing her back against him. She reached up to slip her fingers through his. Everything felt familiar. His big palms, the showy rings on his fingers, and Marie waiting for them when they tripped into Win's penthouse suite.
"Hi," Win said. "I think that went pretty well."
Marie nodded. "We got some good shots. You're trending on most platforms." She came closer and sighed. "Oh, you were smoking."
"She didn't inhale," Leo said. Marie turned to him, taking in his buzz cut with pursed lips.
"Leo," she said.
"I've got the yacht confirmed for eleven o'clock tomorrow," Marie said to Win. "I've tipped off some paparazzi, they'll be ready to tail it. We're going to wait until we're away from the coast to do the kiss, I want it to look like you're alone."
"You going to mark another spot for us?" Leo's tone was mocking.
"Yes," Marie said, giving him a cool look. Leo and Marie had never actually fought, but they often seemed on the cusp of it. He'd made a lot of trouble for Marie in the past—she could still only mention the Met Gala incident in a guttural hiss—and in turn Marie had wrangled Leo into a lot of stunts he hadn't wanted to do. Their antagonism was well-founded, even before you got into their disagreements on what was good for Win's image.
"I'm going to get an early night," Win said. "Sorry we didn't have time to eat."
She hadn't eaten much recently, the upheaval of the last few days combined with a low anxious pit of nausea in her stomach throwing her off her meal plan. She would have breakfast tomorrow, maybe out with Leo on the terrace. Her eyes were strained, her shoulders heavy. Sleep, then food.
Leo released her hand; she had forgotten he was still holding it. He moved in closer to her, and she tilted her head up instinctively. Then she stopped.
They were hidden away in her suite, and the hotel was discreet and expensive enough that staff wouldn't leak updates to the press. There was no need to kiss good night.
"Have a nice evening," she said.
"No other warnings?"
Win shrugged. "The usual. Don't pick anyone up in the bar. But I think you're going to bed soon, anyway." There were faint shadows under his eyes, and Leo had been traveling all day as well. A week of raving in Berlin: she was pretty sure Leo would be asleep before midnight, and told him so.
Leo reached out and tugged a strand of her hair, as though testing the give. "You think you've got me all figured out."
"It's been seven years," Win said. "You can say goodbye to your secrets, Milanowski."
Leo's mouth opened, very briefly. He seemed to decide against what he had planned to say. "Sleep well," he said, and turned, hands shoved into his pockets, shoulders curling in.
Once she was alone, Win kicked off her heels and pulled out her phone. Emil had switched the SIM card two days ago and pared down her contacts to less than ten. There was a rambling voice message from Shift, her best friend, which Win listened to while she took off her jewelry. Shift didn't say anything about Nathan, just talked about the rain in Montreal and how her boyfriend Charlie had missed the delivery of her new audio mixer and wasn't even sorry about it because he'd been in the backyard at the time teaching the neighbor's dog to count to five.
It was nothing that required an immediate response. Win switched the phone off and stumbled through the door to the wide bed that was waiting for her, silk sheets, the French windows of the balcony left open and the sea air fluttering through gauze curtains. She collapsed onto it with her laptop, scanning idly through social media, watching the first stirrings of hysteria grow. When she finally slept, she slept restlessly.
Since she was twenty years old, Win had been two different people, living two different lives.
The first person was the Win who had, give or take some adolescent angst, always existed. Win grew up running wild with her best friend in North East London and then, determined to make a name for herself, grew decidedly less wild. She worked fourteen-hour days in the rain or dark. She had an acidic gift for mimicry, a complicated relationship with her mother, and a bad temper. This was the Win who attended late-night crisis meetings with Marie and spent hours alone with a script trying to talk her way into character. As a teenager, this Win had wanted two things very badly: for her father to get better, and to be given the chance to make it as an actor. She got one of them.
The second person, the second life that Win lived was as Whitman Tagore, international movie star, youngest woman to win a Leading Actress BAFTA, and venerated in both London and Hollywood. Win and Marie had spent the past seven years perfecting Whitman Tagore, testing her angles, honing her glossy edges, working and reworking her flaws. By this point, she was a masterpiece.
- "A perfect summer read."—Vogue
- “The View Was Exhausting is a pure delight! Effortlessly cool, razor sharp, and crazy fun—I couldn’t put it down. It is Notting Hill for 2021, an absolute crowd pleaser.”—Taylor Jenkins Reid, New York Times bestselling author of Malibu Rising
"An absolutely stellar debut with tension that crackles and prose that sings, The View Was Exhausting is the complex, Hollywood love story we've all been waiting for. Clements and Datta have crafted a book that's as heartfelt and earnest as it is sharp and surprising--I couldn't get enough."—Emily Henry, #1 New York Times bestselling author of People We Meet on Vacation
"Married couple Clements and Datta use a playful trope to confront weighty issues in their excellent debut, a romance that's as timely as it is heartfelt. Readers will come for the swoon-worthy romance and stay for the beautiful prose."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Clements and Datta give the novel grit, depth, and originality as they explore how Win must balance her need for self-preservation with her desire to expose the intersection of racism and sexism in the film industry. This will-they, won’t-they journey is packed with emotional resonance.”—Kirkus
- "The View Was Exhausting sweeps you up into the tilt-a-whirl of Hollywood relationships. This richly drawn romance is, crucially, also a journey through the unjust rules forced upon women—especially women of color— who dare to play the fame game. It's timely, touching, and a tantalizing love story."—Jessica Morgan & Heather Cocks, bestselling authors of The Royal We and The Heir Affair
“I read it all in one morning and couldn't put it down once, which frankly was of huge disadvantage to me because I had work to do. The View Was Exhausting is enormously sophisticated, tension held like a net, as it slowly holds the reader closer and closer to a fire, and I laughed many times. It’s an absolute tour de force, and Win is now one of my new favorite protagonists ever.“—Tamsyn Muir, New York Times bestselling author of Gideon the Ninth
- On Sale
- May 17, 2022
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Grand Central Publishing