Below the Surface

Karen Harper
February 2008, Romantic Suspense
MIRA, $6.99, 400 pages, Amazon ASIN 0778324966

Grade: D
Sensuality: Kisses

One of the more disappointing reading experiences must be that in which one gets drawn into the promising opening of a book, only to find the quality of the story drops off rapidly. Worse still is the situation in which one is assigned to review the aforesaid book and, therefore, must stick with it until the bitter (or in this case, tepid) end. I found the premise of Below the Surface interesting, but the mystery plot fell down about halfway through and the romance never did seem plausible.

Briana Devon and her twin sister Daria run a small search and salvage business on the Gulf of Mexico. Veteran divers, the twins dive and document environmental conditions in their local area for a commission concerned about the impact increased development and/or the introduction of waterboat gambling would have. Briana surfaces from a routine dive to find herself utterly alone in the water. The company's boat, manned by Daria, has vanished, and Bree must find her way to shore alone in an approaching storm.

Terrified and battered by the storm, Bree makes it to a small barrier island where boat carpenter Cole de Roca has taken refuge. Cole manages to get Bree to safety and later to a hospital for treatment. From the moment Bree washes up on the barrier island, attraction flares - and that's where the trouble begins.

While Bree's confusion and worry over her twin sister certainly make sense given what has happened to her, Cole's thoughts don't entirely seem plausible. The buildup of suspense is constantly interrupted by Cole's lusting after Bree and by the author's overwriting where the relationship between Cole and Bree is concerned. The text is peppered with phrases such as "His deep voice had seemed to vibrate into the very core of her being" and references to the deep feelings between Cole and Bree even as the two have only known each other for three days - with Bree being mostly unconscious for at least one of those!

Add in plenty of melodrama, a touch of eeeevilll and some truly campy secondary characters, and you have a promising idea that spirals out of control. Bree's uptight older sister Amelia turns out to be a surprisingly interesting character, but most of the other secondary characters almost seem to be caricatures. While there are certainly blow-dried politicians, businessmen with a whiff of corruption around them, and earnest immigrants trying to make their way in the world, most of these people tend to have a little more depth and subtlety to them than this book would give them credit for.

The idea of finding oneself stranded alone in stormy seas and having one's boat and sister vanish mysteriously certainly does make for an interesting - and possibly harrowing - story. However, Below the Surface does not delve plausibly into the heart of its characters and the result is a story that feels thin, forced, and melodramatic. There is still good romantic suspense to be found on the market; this just isn't one of them.

-- Lynn Spencer

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