by Leslie Kelly, contemporary (2004)
Harlequin Temptation, $4.50, ISBN 0-373-69204-8
Leslie Kelly's Make Me Over is the author's second book to be set around a reality TV series (the first book is her full length debut Killing Time. Like Killing Time, Make Me Over is so devoid of much authenticity in its reality TV show setting. Any reality TV fan (not that I'm sure you'll admit to being one, because I usually don't... ahem) who knows even a little of what goes on behind the scenes can go nuts trying to accept many of the implausible things happening here if they are not careful. Also, the motivations of the hero and the heroine that set up the whole story are so far out that I have a hard time moving past the few first chapters. That's a pity because underneath the mess of over-the-top implausible moments and unlikely premise, the romance between handsome stiff-lipped Prof Higgins hero Drew Bennett and our high-school drop-out Eliza Doolittle heroine Tori Lyons is wonderful.
Picture this: a this-close-to-being-a-hasbeen TV producer decides to jump on the reality TV bandwagon to reestablish his reputations and restore his fortunes. At his daughter's suggestion, he launches a Joe Millionaire kind of dating reality show. Prof Drew Bennett thinks that he's selected to groom one of the many unruly women on the show Hey, Make Me Over into a pretty princess. He is reluctant to be on the show but hey, he wants to promote his book Beyond Eliza Doolittle and the show offers to donate ten percent of the gross profits of the show to his favorite charity. Surely a Virtuous Hero can't do wrong by doing it all for charity, right?
Meanwhile, Tori is on the show because she promised her father to complete her education when she (and everyone else) thought he was dying but now that he's still alive, she's stuck with the vow she has made. This is somehow tied up with her joining the show as one of the women vying for Drew's polishing skills (no, not that kind of polishing). But Tori decides to be the first one to be eliminated so she will be able to get out of her vow to her father without actually... you know, I'll get back to you on that one after I've consulted my copy of Indecipherable Illogicity of Romance Novel Characters Who Try Way Too Hard To Be Virtuous At The Expense Of Common Sense, and yes, It's For Dummies!. I'm sure her wanting to get out of the show to meet her brother, kick his butt, and pay off his debts to a mean loan shark will somehow make her attempts in breaking her vow to her father into something more palatable. I think. What can I say? Daddies, useless brothers, an old house - these are the prime etiological motivations to Heroines Behaving Bizarrely.
Unknown to Drew, the real prize these women will win is him. Don't ask me how the show people will expect to get away with this. I'm sure somehow the disclosure statements and contracts Drew sign up before he comes onto this show will protect the producers.
I almost put the book down permanently when Drew walks into a house, describes the scene as something out of Girls Gone Wild, and the author then slowly cuts to the sordid scenes of women "dirty dancing", taking part in spitting competitions, and indulging in some heavy drinking tournaments. How scandalous. I especially love the use of the taboo phrase "dirty dancing" which has gone out of fashion among the crowd that watches and performs on Girls Gone Wild ten years before they are born. The barrage of "what on earth" moments keep coming. Won't women who signed up to win a guy behave better than acting like some programmed robots whose dials are set just a little over Neanderthal and under Redneck? Then there is the charmer: Tori manages to wander off into the library while the other women are watching Days Of Thunder and hence misses Drew's grand entrance. I'm sure Drew's grand entrance should be a big scene in the opening episode, if the few seasons of The Bachelor I sat through are anything to go by, so am I supposed to assume that there is no cameras, no security, and the contestants can wander off nilly-willy?
That's not counting the bizarre ease Tori and Drew manage to find quiet times for themselves. Even more inexplicable is how Drew expects to be given privacy. Privacy on a reality show? Wow. The "reality TV" premise of this book is in name only, which very little in the story that bears any actual resemblance to even a minor reality TV show. In fact, the story would have so much better if Drew and Tori happen to be, say, two lucky winners to guest-star in a few episodes of a soap opera because Ms Kelly's description of the way the show takes place will be more realistic if we are talking about the filming of a scripted TV show.
But take away the premise, set-up, and plot development and I will get two nice characters. Drew isn't the usual kind of nerd while Tori, despite the obligatory nitwit moments that every romance heroine must have in order to be "virtuous", has a reasonable and often sensible outlook in life, especially when it comes to sex. She may be weird at times when it comes to honoring vows and carrying out family obligations, but she doesn't make apologies for her being who and what she is, there is no annoying prolonged "Not worthy!" moments, and she is no simpering frigid neurotic when it comes to sex. The romance may develop under a logic-free constellation but Ms Kelly puts in all the right things to make the romance credible. Drew learns to appreciate Tori beyond the surface and when he asks her late in the story not to change for him because he loves her the way she is, he comes off as genuine because both he and Tori have considered and pondered most of important issues that they must look at if the relationship is to work, such as trust, respect, and friendship along with the usual lust factor.
All in all, when Ms Kelly is not trying to contort her likeable characters into saying or doing things to fit into a plot that doesn't make much sense to begin with, Drew and Tori really come off as wonderful characters with great chemistry and sexual tension who deserve a better story than the one they are stuck in. I am really tempted to grade this book higher because I really, really like Tori and Drew, especially towards the later parts of the book when they start talking, listening, and trying to overcome the obstacles to their relationship. When it comes to a romance, especially one taking place in the restricting constraints of a category romance, Ms Kelly is on to something really good with Drew and Tori. They are, to put it simply, rock.
But the characters cannot exist in a vacuum, separated from the plot or premise. In the case of Make Me Over, the author has taken too much liberties in changing the rules where her premise of a reality TV show is concerned to the point that I cannot forget how ridiculous I find the whole story. I spend way too much time nitpicking on the illogical moments or irregularities of the plot to enjoy myself as much as I should be. I do like the main characters but I don't enjoy their story as much as I wish that they have a different story to shine in.
Readers who can overlook the huge, er, creative liberties (how's that for being diplomatic?) Ms Kelly took in the premise may find something really good here. Finding a good category romance is like buying some chocolates to nibble away the time only to realize that the chocolates now can help one lose ten pounds with each bite. How often does that happen? As for me, I really wish that someone will actually come up and do an extreme makeover or at least a Fab Five session on the plot and premise.
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