Pandora's Box

What To Do About Annie?

Millie Criswell
2001, Contemporary Romance
Ivy, $6.99, 336 pages, Amazon ASIN 0804119511
Part of a series

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

Linda:   As I read What to Do About Annie, I thought that it would surely make everyone wanting "something different" happy. A sequel to The Trouble With Mary, Annie continues the adventures of the Russo family. It features strong ethnic characters, a hero who leaves the Priesthood, and a promiscuous heroine - all in all, a very "different" book.

Blythe:   It's different alright, and I like different books as much as the next person, but I just didn't like this different book. I found the characters overbearing, the plot uninteresting, and the hero un-priest-like. I know he's an ex-priest, but I couldn't believe he'd ever been one to begin with. Did this book work any better for you?

Linda:   Yes, I liked it a lot. Did you read Mary? While this book stands alone, I think the enjoyment is much increased if you read Mary. Joe's agonizing over leaving the priesthood and his life is dealt with in Mary's book and when Annie opens he has already made his decision and decided to deal with his feelings for Annie. Frankly, I started out not liking Joe a whole lot - why he left Annie and joined the priesthood was hard to deal with, but like Annie, I came to love him as he opened his heart and showed his emotional pain and love. I love the Russos and even though they're perhaps a bit over the top, I have known ethnic mothers who are quite similar, so Sophia rang true for me.

Blythe:   Ah... maybe that's it. I didn't read Mary, so I wasn't in on any of the soul-searching. In fact, he never seemed to think twice about leaving his Godly calling. There were a couple of sentences about his difficulty finding a job, but other than that, his switch-over into lay life seemed as easy as rolling off a log. He even slips right into swearing and fornication without missing a beat. I don't have a problem with swearing and premarital sex per se (in fact I was just complaining that Brockmann's latest book needed more swearing). But this is a former priest, and while he may have gotten into it for the wrong reasons, surely he would have internalized some of what he was teaching his parishioners.

As for the families, it wasn't just Sophia who bothered me, although she certainly did bother me. Except for the newly married Mary and Dan, no one seemed to get along. Husbands and wives, children and parents, cousins, aunts and mothers-in-law. The one thing they all have in common is that they are rude and mean to each other. Take Annie's parents, Sid and Gina. Why on earth did they get married? Why were they still married? And how could Joe's mother Sophia be so amazingly rude to Annie?

Linda:   There was a lot in Mary about Joe and it was obvious that he was agonizing over his self-perception that he was a failure as a priest and it was also clear there was a history between him and Annie. She seemed to go out of her way to irritate and tease him. Joe is an interesting hero and perhaps his reentry seemed a little too pat and easy, but I also grew to like him a lot. I was sure he was in for a fall when he expected that the kids he counseled at the crisis center were all going to make it because of his counseling - obviously unrealistic expectations of himself and the kids. I liked Annie a lot though - a wonderful, complex and strong character.

Sophia's rudeness to Annie was nothing compared to how she had treated Mary in book one - this woman is a real fire-eater and I loved it when her husband Frank shot her down. As far as Gina and Sid, I think they were one of those couples that just loves to fight. I know couples like that and their constant bickering seems to be the glue that holds them together. It is obvious that Sid and Gina love each other, in spite, or perhaps because, of their differences. I also loved Annie's cousin, Donna-the-prima-donna, and can hardly wait to see more of her romance with Lou, the deli owner, in the next book - it is obvious those two are made for each other.

Blythe:   I guess I missed the part about Sid and Gina loving each other. All I heard was the complaining, and I didn't like either of them. But then compared to Sophia they were practically saints. But you know how you can read some books and wonder how anyone could possibly like them? This wasn't like that. I didn't like it at all, yet I could see how someone else might. Maybe my family background has something to do with my lack or appreciation for these characters. I'm not even remotely Italian or Jewish. No one in my family would say any of the things that these people say to each other - they would be more likely to be completely polite, and then voice any complaints or wry observations to other family members in private. No one would dream of making the kind of scenes that are routine for the characters in Annie.

Linda:   LOL, I came from a long line of people who aired their problems over the kitchen table. I grew up with a great-aunt and grandmother who insulted each other regularly - acting as if they were 10 years old when they were in their 80's - they were a real riot at Christmas <G>. One of my best friends, Marie, is an "Italian Earth Mother" and her mother-in-law is almost as insulting as Sophia. Marie's mother-in-law is also very partial to her only grandson and considered her a failure when she only produced four girls (a fifth child - a boy - made up for it!), so for me Sophia rang true and her partiality for Joe was obvious, too. I felt these ethnic characters were obviously a little over-the-top but grounded in reality. I loved them and loved seeing Dan and Mary again. The friendship between Annie and Mary is quite lovely and I really enjoyed their interactions and also the budding friendship and bonding between Dan and Joe.

Blythe:   I guess my family is more the "snide, quiet comments about those who aren't there to defend themselves" type. Which is why I never miss a family reunion. These people were just so loud and rude to each other that I wanted to go hide instead of reading about them. It wasn't pleasant for me. Unfortunately, I never got into Annie and Joe's relationship either, but maybe that has something to do with the fact that I missed half of it - apparently the more interesting half. There just didn't seem to be much of a conflict. Joe loves Annie. Annie loves Joe, and always has, but she's afraid to trust him. And that's about it. Throw in a dozen squabbling relatives and a too good to be true teenage foster daughter for Annie, and there you have it. This just wasn't compelling for me.

Linda:   I did like Mary better then Annie, probably because I liked the romance and volatility between Dan and Mary better. But, in Mary, Annie was always going out of her way to tease and irritate Father Joseph letting him know she had a different man in her bed every night. In this book I found her to be a strong, likable, if slightly flaky, character and I did believe that she and Joe had loved each other in spite of all the pain.

Blythe:   I guess I believed that they loved each other too, but I wasn't really interested in hearing about it. What did impress me was Criswell's willingness to try something different. I know I've never read another romance with an ex-priest hero. This premise didn't succeed for me, but I was glad to see something novel. But then I'm also not Catholic. Do you think a practicing Catholic might see this book differently? What would they think about Annie calling Joe "Father What-a-hunk?"

Linda:   I think that young girls gossip about handsome priests being a hunk. In many ways Annie seemed to have a case of arrested adolescence at the start of the book, but she does grow and mature throughout. I think she had put her emotions in mothballs and that kept her from becoming a fully mature woman.

I have Catholic friend to whom I lent Mary; she enjoyed the book, but said that she wouldn't read a book that featured a priest leaving the priesthood. But, I personally felt it obvious that Joe had entered the priesthood in error and guilt and that his decision to leave was a healthy one - the fact that his Bishop gave him the job at the Crisis Center conveyed to me that the Church agreed with Joe's decision to leave.

Blythe:   What did you think about Annie's foster charge, Tess? Although she was likable (heck, I liked her better than any of Annie's real relatives), her too-quick connection with Annie seemed unbelievable to me.

Linda:   It did seem a little pat to me too - having had personal experience in dealing with a troubled teen, but it was also clear that Tess's problem was really her parents and when removed from them she was eager to live in a healthy manner. I loved her spats with Donna-the-prima-donna, funny stuff. I also loved the dialogue in this book and contemporary references, they all rang true and didn't seem stilted or unreal to me. This is truly a character-driven book; not a whole lot goes on, but I enjoyed and liked the characters and will certainly be on the lookout for the next installment, which I think deals with the lawyer Angela and cousin Donna.

Blythe:   Actually, I kind of liked Donna myself. She was so over-the-top in her selfishness, but it was kind of funny that she and Tess seemed to establish a rapport. I'm just glad Donna doesn't live at my house.

Linda:   I also loved Donna's crazy mother Lola - her habit of bursting into show tunes at inopportune times added a touch of the zany to Criswell's ethnic melange. I think there was a lot to like in this book and I also consider Criswell very brave for striking out in completely original territory for the romance genre. She breaks lots of taboos in these books, yet always does it with humor and I also feel that she loves these characters - even Sophia. I truly enjoyed reading about the residents of Little Italy. One thing that really struck me funny was Sid's refusal to talk while he is eating - my hubby is like that - eating is a serious matter to these men!

Blythe:   Well, I'm not all that eager to revisit Little Italy myself. If someone asked me for a Criswell recommendation, I would steer them towards her historicals instead. I read a couple that I enjoyed a whole lot more than Annie (Sweet Laurel comes to mind).

So what's up for next month?

Linda:   Next month we are reading No Man's Mistress by Mary Balogh. I have had mixed results on Balogh's single titles, but love most of her conventional Regency Romances.

Blythe:   Same here. I know some readers think that perhaps Balogh "jumped the shark" when she moved into single titles, and though I thought her last book, More Than a Mistress, was just so-so, I adored One Night for Love. I'm eager to read this one.

Linda:   See you next month.

Blythe:   See you then.

--Blythe Barnhill and Linda Hurst, for

-- Pandora's Box

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