Ain't She Sweet?

Susan Elizabeth Phillips
2005 reissue of 2004 release, Contemporary Romance
Avon, $7.99, 400 pages, Amazon ASIN 0061032085

Grade: B-
Sensuality: Warm

Like most super-successful women's fiction and romance authors, Susan Elizabeth Phillips elicits strong opinions from readers who either love or hate her distinctive style. Ain't She Sweet won't change anyone's mind. On the one hand, it will probably please most fans because the author mines previously successful character types and plot themes and employs to good advantage her trademark wit and sense of humor. On the other hand, non-fans with past experience of the author will likely not appreciate what they might perceive as the same old daffy characters/plots, argumentative hero/heroine, and a wicked, slightly kinky approach to sexual matters. It's a good news/bad news story - if you liked her before, you'll like this one too, though it's not her best effort. If you didn't like her before, then be aware that nothing has substantially changed.

Sugar Beth Carey began her life in small town Parrish, Mississippi as the privileged daughter of estranged parents who were the most powerful people in town. Wealthy, spoiled, and malicious, the Sugar Beth of old reminded me of the title character from the movie Heathers - beautiful, bored, and mean just because she could be. Sugar Beth had her own posse of teens - the Seawillows - who followed her lead in unkind pranks. Further proving her selfish immaturity, Sugar Beth dropped her high school sweetheart Ryan and the Seawillows when she went to college, earning their eternal animosity. She also left behind Colin Byrne, a young teacher who stood up to Sugar Beth and her doting mom, losing his job and reputation in the process.

Call it karma or justice, but when Sugar Beth returns to Parrish, it's not as the prodigal daughter. Reminiscent of Rachel from Dream a Little Dream, Sugar Beth returns as a desperate, down-on-her-luck, formerly spoiled princess who is a little smarter, wiser, and regretful about her past actions. She's not really noble - she doesn't particularly want to face her demons - but she doesn't have anywhere else to go. Her third husband recently passed away, leaving her broke but responsible for the care of his developmentally disabled daughter. Sugar Beth truly loves the woman and is trying to find the money to keep her step-daughter in the group home she loves. Returning to the carriage house let her by her aunt, Sugar Beth intends to find a valuable painting in the house, staying in Parrish only long enough to locate and sell it before returning to Houston. Of course, it's not going to be that easy.

The first eye-opener for Sugar Beth is that Colin Byrne - now a hugely successful author after writing a fictional book about Parrish - has moved back to town and resides in her old home. Since it shares property with her carriage house, the two engage immediately in hostilities, including an amusing battle over rights to the driveway. Colin has looked forward to revenge on Sugar Beth for years, and discounts her grudging (though sincere) apology for her past behavior. He's determined to humiliate Sugar Beth, as is nearly everyone in town, including her old pals the Seawillows and favorite former whipping girl Winnie Davis. Winnie is now the leader of the Seawillows and I found the complicated relationship between the two to be quite interesting and nuanced. I particularly enjoyed the slow development of the rapproachment between people who have many reasons to dislike and avoid each other, but instead eventually learn to respect and appreciate one another.

As the hero of Ain't She Sweet, Colin is a strong character with a lot of quirks - an Irish workman turned scholar/writer who has a taste for high fashion (he's wearing a purple smoking jacket and black silk pajama bottoms when we meet him), but no qualms about getting his hands dirty around the house and yard. He's a man of integrity, which he allows to suffer a bit during his quest to humiliate Sugar Beth, but he soon recovers from the lapse and makes amends when he realizes things have gone too far.

I had a qualm about a potential mismatch between them - Colin seems too self-contained and centered to really need a flamethrower like Sugar Beth permanently in his life. True, she brings sparkle and wit to his otherwise rather staid life path, but there was an element of a possibly unhealthy codependence between the two that made me uneasy. Nevertheless, their attraction is undeniable and I bought their journey from hostility to friendship. The leap from friendship to lovers worked, as well - the sexual tension is believable and the love scenes sensual and hot. But when it comes to picturing them together many years from now? I'm just not 100% convinced.

Part of my hesitation stems from the fact that the author employed an old trick of hers by separating the main characters for a long time towards the end and having one issue a challenge to the other in order to determine their fate together. I dislike this plot device, which tainted my enjoyment of Ain't She Sweet. I much prefer to see a couple working things out together or at least discussing the problems with which they are dealing.

There is a secondary plot about Winnie and her husband (Sugar Beth's ex-sweetheart Ryan) that was well done, although there were a few too many games played between them to suit me. The couple's 13-year-old daughter Gigi plays a rather large role and is a fun addition to the story - in fact, the whole family experiences Sugar Beth's return like a bomb exploding, and the fallout is alternately amusing, painful, and ultimately rewarding.

The deep South atmosphere in the book is thick and peopled with stereotypes, but SEP has a way of laughing with the characters and not at them which seems to make those stereotypes less troublesome. During a few of the Seawillows' cackle-fests about what they were going to do to Sugar Beth, I had a few minutes of "oh for heaven's sake, you're grown women now and all that high school stuff happened 15 years ago," but the author wisely has another character express the same sentiment, so it stopped my eye-rolling.

Ain't She Sweet is a mixed bag. There was plenty to enjoy and it kept me turning the pages, but there were also enough irksome things that I can't say I would read it again. If you've enjoyed SEP in the past, then it's worth a read, but you may well feel the same way in the end. If you've never read the author, I recommend It Had to Be You, Lady Be Good or Nobody's Baby But Mine for a better introduction to the author's view of the world and relationships.

-- Nicole Miale

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