Pandora's Box

Sweet Success

Susan Mallery
2001, Contemporary Romance
Pocket, $6.99, 352 pages, Amazon ASIN 0743405951

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

There is a staff review of this book as well

Ali Thomas owns a sweet shop that turns out "magical" chocolates, so delicious they are a bit of heaven and can even change your life.

Ali's ex-movie star mother, Charlotte Elizabeth, is hounding her for grand-children. But, Ali hasn't even had a decent date in years. Into Ali's hectic life comes Matt Baker, an itinerant laborer in dire need of Ali's life-changing sweets. Matt is so laden with guilt that he has literally fled his past life and turned into an emotional zombie, but Ali, the folks of St. Maggie and even Miss Sylvie, the pig, ride to the rescue with chocolates and love.

Linda:   Blythe, I think we must be living right; two months in a row we get wonderful, contemporary, character-driven books. Sweet Success combines the best elements of Beauty and the Beast as well, although Matt is a gorgeous "beast." I really loved this couple, and the secondary characters including the pig, were fun and interesting.

Blythe:   Well, I liked the secondary characters. I liked Charlotte Elizabeth, the pig, Ali's brother Rick, and also Ali herself. I also liked the setting and parts of the plot. Unfortunately, I just didn't like the hero. He pushed every "get over it, buddy" button that I have, and I could barely tolerate him until the end of the book.

Linda:   LOL, I saw him as a wounded "beast" and just loved him, but I've always been a sucker for these gentle beasts. My heart just went out to him when he first appeared, so thin, and with blank eyes. Watching him come reluctantly, and guiltily, back to life was just a joy. I found him quite touching - I really liked the fact that he'd realized he had been a total jerk in his previous life, and had to come to terms with that fact. Not a lot of people are strong enough to realize and admit that they've been jerks; most would blame someone else for their problems. I found him likable and I just loved Ali. I thought that Rick, Ali's brother's, gay lifestyle and persona well presented.

Blythe:   I'm glad you mentioned Rick, because that's something that this book does right in a big way. Even though I disliked the hero, I am tempted to recommend this book to several of our reviewers who especially enjoy seeing homosexual characters portrayed in a positive light. Rick is gay, but no one makes a huge deal about it, and his family is very accepting. In fact, at the beginning when Charlotte Elizabeth meets Matt, she notices that he's gorgeous and sizes him up so she can decide whether he is right for her daughter...or her gay step-son! This is a far cry from the family in Mary Jo Putney's The Burning Point, where the gay brother was thrown out of the house.

But Matt ... well, I'm glad he felt responsible, but as far as I was concerned he made the situation ten times worse by going on a year-long bender and letting everything go to pot so he could wallow in his misery and be rude to anyone who asked any personal questions. Ali does reform him though, which goes a long way toward making this a palatable read.

Linda:   I think that terrible guilt can make people do some very irrational things. Realizing what he had done, when it was too late to do anything to change it, was a pretty awful thing to live with. When he first appears he is really just a zombie - he doesn't eat and doesn't even feel anything but guilt and emptiness. Ali brings him reluctantly back to life with her gentle ways and she also teaches him that there is another way to live without being obsessed with being number one. Ali was a character who could have been more problematical - had she had been portrayed as too good to be true it would have spoiled the book. But her self-doubts, and the fact that she thought she had to live up to being her ex-movie star mother's Million-dollar-baby saved her from being too much of a Pollyanna. Plus the sex scenes between her and Matt were terrific - no goody-two-shoes here.

I think it was realistic that Ali's family accepted Rick so easily and naturally - they were from the Hollywood community where being gay even in the 60's and 70's was much more easily accepted. My only problem with this book was that it dragged a little bit for me about halfway way through, but then it picked up speed again towards the end. I also liked the fact that once again the dreaded long separation was avoided.

Blythe:   Guilt, I could understand, but I thought what he did was terribly self-indulgent and just made matters worse.

I agree with you about the love scenes. The first one occurs when Matt arrives semi-drunk at Ali's door, and I was a little horrified at first. But the author handles the situation well, and the morning after is very realistic. Making love doesn't instantly solve their problems - in fact it is the cause of a huge argument. But it is the catalyst that helps them come to terms with their differences and learn about each other. I enjoyed the book much more after this point.

Linda:   I loved the morning after, too. Mallery makes wonderful use of the Men Are from Mars, Women from Venus conversation mode we all know so well. Ali wants words of love and Matt wants to tell her how to improve her business. I loved her realization that his dragging a computer into her kitchen was the modern male's equivalent of the hunter/caveman dragging his kill back to his love in the cave. The frustration we all so often feel trying to converse with the males of the species was great. But, best of all, was Rick's comment about being gay: that there was no "woman" in the relationship to insist that they talk about feelings. Funny and probably true.

Mallery displays a deft wit and writes some great dialogue in SS. The only character that was a little hard for me to digest was Ali's mother, Charlotte Elizabeth - she didn't seem quite "real." But then I wonder if someone who had been a big Hollywood star would always seem to be playing different roles in their daily lives? I loved the scene where Ali tells her mother she always wanted a sister; she just didn't know she would be a pig! Very funny and it lightened a reconciliation scene that could have become too maudlin. Mallery makes a lot of great choices in this book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have always enjoyed her series books written as Mallery and Susan Macias, and it appears she is going to make a successful transition to contemporary single titles.

Blythe:   I also liked the feelings/computer exchange, which seemed very realistic to me. In fact, I agree about the dialogue - but for me this all happened after Matt stopped being close-mouthed and mopey about his past. I really don't have anything against wounded heroes per se, but for me they have to a) be wounded because of something major and believable and b) grieve in an acceptable way without coming across as a total jerk. Matt failed test "b" for me, at least initially.

I did find Charlotte Elizabeth somewhat detached, but that seemed to suit her character. And Ali makes a number of funny comments about the pig (I loved the whole idea of the pig "choosing" Christmas presents).

As for Susan Macias, I read one of her historicals and really enjoyed it, and I certainly would not be averse to trying her again. I like her style. This particular hero just happened to wander into one of my pet peeve areas.

Linda:   LOL, I think I'd be safe in guessing that Beauty and the Beast was not your favorite fairy tale, right? <g> It was mine, though, and many of my favorite books have "beastly" men in them. What I liked best about Matt though was that even though wounded, he didn't wound others. I think he was genuinely horrified when he "woke" up and realized how his running away had hurt others. I think a big factor in his reaction was his mother's death when he was a child. Matt hated his father for neglecting his mother and I think when he realized he had become the same sort of man, he was truly horrified and running wasn't even a conscious act - he just walked away and kept going without ever stopping to think about it. Ali meets him after he's been running for a year and Matt-the-zombie slowly begins to awaken and accept responsibility for both his actions in the past and his running away. I found it very realistic and just loved Matt's growth and humanization.

Blythe:   Actually, I do like Beauty and the Beast, but more as a fairy tale than as a romance. To be completely honest, my favorite fairy tale was always the more obscure Twelve Dancing Princesses, where the hero wins the youngest Princess by being clever (rather than attracting sympathy because he is moody or beastly). As far as Matt goes, I think he did wound his friend and business through his neglect, and I thought fleeing all his responsibilities was cowardly. I think real courage is facing difficult circumstances and rising above them. Thank goodness Ali taught him a better, more generous way to live.

Linda:   I agree that Matt was "beastly;" he wasn't a very nice human being before he began to awaken under Ali's gentle touch. Since this was revealed mostly in flashbacks, I already liked him before the reasons he ran away were shared. Perhaps this made his behavior easier to swallow. Matt is truly taught a better way to live by Ali and the people of St. Magdelana and he is definitely a better man at the end of the book. But, the nice part is that he also helps to rescue Ali as well - without the insights he gives her she would never have come to terms with her "million dollar baby" past and would have spent the rest of her life trying to prove herself worthy. I think that many are going to enjoy this character-driven tale and deservedly so.

We do need to mention that Matt's awakening began with his first taste of Ali's delicious "magical" chocolate truffles. I always knew that chocolate could cure what ails you and it certainly did for Matt.

Blythe:   That's true - the chocolate did do the trick. The truffles didn't tempt me, but I did find myself wondering where I could find some good chocolate covered strawberries - something I've never thought of wanting before. I might add that this book also had me craving scones. It's probably not the safest read if you're on a diet. I think we should add here that this book is nothing like the academy award-nominated movie Chocolat. When I first picked up the book and saw that the heroine owned a chocolate shop, I was expecting a similar story for some reason. Both stories are completely unique.

About Mallery's series titles - are there any in particular that you would recommend? You might want to steer me away from her wounded heroes. <g>

Linda:   I am bad with titles but The Bodyguard and Ms. Jones is one I remember enjoying. I also liked her story in the Montana Mavericks Weddings anthology - A Montana Mavericks Christmas.

Chocolate covered strawberries are to die for, but then so are chocolate covered apple slices, and apricots, etc. In fact, I don't think any food is so good it couldn't be improved with a little chocolate on top!

Didn't you love Matt's reaction when he first saw the prissy tearoom and bed and breakfast? I just loved the image of such a masculine man in that frou frou bedroom, having watched my own hubby cringe when we went to lunch in the S&S tearoom I can tell you it was a realistic reaction - men hate those places!

Blythe:   Hmmm - It was clever enough, but it didn't strike me as being that hilarious.

I think it's pretty clear that Sweet Success was almost an unqualified success for you, Linda. For me, it was really a mixed bag. I liked most of the characters, but Matt's early behavior really annoyed me, so this really isn't one I'd recommend.

Linda:   So Blythe, what are we reading next month?

Blythe:   Next month we will be discussing Dancing Upon the Air, the first book in a new trilogy by Nora Roberts, set in Salem, MA. I always look forward to her trilogies, more than her single titles and categories, so I am eagerly anticipating this one.

Linda:   I loved the Quinn Brothers trilogy and have the Irish one lined up on my TBR shelf, so I'm looking forward to this one. See you next month.

Blythe:   Till next month.

--Blythe Barnhill and Linda Hurst, for

-- Pandora's Box

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