Susan Elizabeth Phillips
July 2012, Contemporary Romance
William Morrow, $25.99, 432 pages, Amazon ASIN 0062106066 Part of a series
Once upon a time, Susan Elizabeth Phillips wrote a terrific novel about a bride who ran off with a man on a motorcycle. She took a chance, left behind a wealthy lifestyle and a wedding full of family and friends and ran towards an uncertain future with a bad boy. It was a fantastic tale of a woman finding herself and becoming all she could be. Unfortunately, that isn't this book. That book is Hot Shot. This book might be more accurately called Hot Mess.
Lucy Jorik is about to marry the most perfect man in the world. He isn't just perfect for her - he is perfect, period. Brilliant, talented, handsome and a great lover. Rather than go through the horror of a marriage to that, she runs off with a stranger on a motorcycle. A motorcycle whose bumper sticker reads "ass, gas or grass. nobody rides free". Yep, that would have totally attracted me too.
Patrick Shade, mostly known as Panda, finds himself stuck watching over a princess. How best to care for her when the princess wants to prove she's a bad ass by hanging out with a guy like him? By playing along and letting her see his less than charming side. Hopefully a few days of roughing it with a genuine a-hole will have the princess begging to be dropped at the nearest airport. The two embark on a motorcycle trip that takes them through a string of cheap hotels until they land in a vacation cabin in Caddo Lake. It's almost relaxing- spending time on the lake, vegging out. But all good things must come to an end and this end is at Memphis International Airport. The truth comes out and dreams are shattered. It should be the last time they see each other. But one of them is bent on exacting payment.
Lucy's revenge? To break and enter into Panda's real vacation home and make it her own. Until he learns he has a squatter and decides to deal with the problem personally. As the two squabble over who has the most right to the home (um, the owner?), they learn a little about compromise and a lot about friendship.
Most SEP books have a somewhat unbelievable premise. A genius physics professor who plays hooker and snags a star quarterback. A rape victim forced to marry his rapist, who happens to be a bunny book author. I've accepted almost everything she has thrown at me over the years, but the first hundred pages of this book had me longing to throw it against the nearest wall. Panda's T-shirts and bumper sticks - meant to be part of his cover - often crossed lines for me. I'm sure someone would find "Never trust anything that bleeds five days a month and doesn't die" absolutely hilarious, but I couldn't find the humor in it. I felt he could have gotten his point across a lot less offensively. To clarify, that is the Panda we meet in the first hundred pages. As the book progresses we learn his sad back story (and it is sad) and all the rather impressive things he has done along the way to become who he is now. While his personality remains a bit abrasive, we eventually see the big heart beneath the tough exterior. Did I fall for him? No. But I certainly didn't hate him.
Unfortunately I can't say the same about Lucy. Gone is the mature but mouthy charmer of First Lady. This girl (who at age 31 should be a woman) is immature, naive, and rather foolish. For naive, she leaves her wedding on the back of the motorcycle of a perfect stranger. She expects him to a) take care of her and b) not sell her story to the press. As far as foolish goes, she leaves her wedding with a total stranger whose bumper sticker reads "ass, gas or grass. nobody rides free". She maintains that level of intelligence throughout the novel doing things like breaking and entering, chasing robbers down dark alleys, and hiding out behind dumpsters waiting to be rescued. It's like she has no clue about the dangers of the world and the reality of how most humans behave. She can't be beat in immaturity. She takes pride in making prank calls and doing other things that were "totally juvenile. Moderately satisfying." To be daring she messes with her hair and gets fake tattoos. It's 2012. It's not even daring to get real tattoos anymore. Her reverse bucket list includes things like "making out in public." Wow, PDA. I wish I was willing to take risks like kiss a guy in public. It wasn't just that she was complaining about needing to be rescued from a pretty easy life; she wanted to do things most of us outgrew at 16, even if we missed out on doing them. Couldn't she have wanted to get a race car or climb a mountain like normal people in the throes of a midlife crisis? Also, like many SEP heroines she seemed to have trouble understanding the idea of property law. A lot of the book is spent with Lucy claiming someone else's home and proceeding to throw out and rearrange the furniture. The only really constructive thing we see her doing is baking bread, a trick she learned in the White House.
Another reason I disliked Lucy so much was that she was the epitome of the spoiled rich kid. "You don't know how hard I had it! I had to help with my brothers and sisters while my parents were on international trips! I had to behave well or it would be all over the evening news!" I found this hard to swallow. The Joriks had a nanny (Tamarah) in First Lady. It seems unlikely they wouldn't have one after she died. They had small children and Lucy was working as a social worker. Who was going to take care of the kids on a day to day basis? As far as the perfect behavior thing went, First Lady says "In a series of columns he'd (Mat) written since the election, he'd made it clear to the American public that he and the new President were the parents of kids who were sometimes angels, sometimes brats, and frequently everything in between. The President was answerable to the American people, but her children weren't, and anybody who had a problem with that could just vote for someone else next election, then take the consequences." To me that sounds like her parents gave her permission to be yourself. It's true that someone made a comment once about Lucy being ungrateful, but it seems unlikely that a girl who at fourteen attempted to raise her baby sister without outside help would crumble at a little criticism. While we are on the subject, a lot of regular kids help out with their siblings, go to school, and hold part time jobs. All without the benefit of White House staff to drive them around or clean up after them. Lucy's whining about a missed childhood fell on deaf ears here.
To add insult to injury, when she rebels from the horror that was her responsible childhood she does so on money she had to have inherited. Sorry, but I know what social workers make and it's not enough to bribe anyone with the offer of 1,000 bucks a day. Even as a lobbyist (for child welfare) she wouldn't make that much. So while she longs for the wild days she would have had if her parents had not been wealthy and powerful, she leans on their money. Admirable. I know a lot of people struggled with Meg in Call Me Irresistible but we get to spend time with Meg as she grows up and matures. Lucy is on a journey to do the opposite. Just picture a less responsible and less mature version of Bridget Jones.
While I'm on the subject of my many problems with Lucy, a major ick factor for me was how the book kept talking about how young she looked. "Those shorts and T-shirts made her look like a damned fifteen-year old, which should have turned his stomach but didn't because she wasn't fifteen." Okay, but he was still being turned on by someone looking fifteen. If the sight of her in her shorts and T's was a turn on and they conversely made her look fifteen, isn't there a problem? This was repeated often enough that I stumbled over it and kept getting icked out of the story.
Enough angst. If Lucy was what I hated about this novel, the secondary characters were what I loved. Toby, her 12 year old island neighbor, is a flashback to the Lucy of First Lady. Like her, he has a hard history and seems to have lost his last caregiver. But help comes from unexpected places and he learns some lessons about accepting love along the way. Another positive of the book was that at about page 200 it morphs into women's fiction and becomes a comfortable tale of female bonding. Temple, Kristy, and Bree were great friends for Lucy and between them they were able to get all their lives turned around.
There are also a few secondary romances here. Max and Temple were probably meant to shock us (or at least surprise us). Like Bree, all I did was blink. Bree's romance with Mike is shown in more detail, and I absolutely loved it. Bree was everything I wish Lucy had been - smart, resourceful, hardworking, caring. She took on the responsibility of a child of a casual friend and ran with it. I liked and admired her. Yes, she had baggage but she dealt with it in a lot more productive ways than the "heroine" ever did. She also had more of a love story than Lucy and Panda had. While the two of them had sex and shared snacks, the only moment of real emotional sharing was brief and followed by a break up. Tender and loving these two weren't. Mike and Bree on the other hand had dates. A shared meal at home. A moment spent over ice cream sundaes. Time at church. It was fun to watch them deal with Toby and his attendant baggage. And I enjoyed watching Bree set up her honey business and roadside stand. We really got to see how these two became a couple, complete with conversations that involved sharing their lives. I could see why they fell for each other, which is what I expect from a good romance.
To recommend or not recommend, that is the question. I had a lot of mixed feelings about this, but in the end came out on the side of a marginal recommendation. If you are a fan of SEP, you know that some of her books have more quirks than others. Those quirks hit each individual differently. While I thought Breathing Room was practically unreadable, I know people who loved it. I liked Ain't She Sweet while many just hated it. This book had a ton of bad quirks in my opinion, but you may be able to overlook it and find treasure beneath. However, if you have never read SEP before, start with another of her works such as Heaven, Texas. It'll ease you into the crazy, fun style that is unique to this great author.
-- Maggie Boyd
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