by Julie Ortolon, contemporary (2005)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-21707-1
When she learns that she is used in her ex-college friend's motivational self-help book as an example of a woman who allowed her fears to hold her back in life, Amy Baker realizes that it is true - she has allowed her fear of the unknown to force her to live a predictable, safe, and stagnant life. She decides to take a step into changing her life by visiting a faraway place. As the owner of a successful franchise called Traveling Nannies, she doesn't even have to spend a cent on an air ticket - all she has to do to make herself available as a nanny for hire.
This is how she ends up in St Barts, the capital city of the small Caribbean island of Gustavia. Amy may somehow run a successful business, but she is hopeless as a nanny. I know, what a surprise. Amy loses track of time one time too many while taking care of her client's kids and after being berated for missing the schedule, Amy decides to wander off from the ship as if she's Bridget Jones or something. It's a bad move - the ship sails on without her, thus leaving Amy stranded in an island where everyone speaks French without her clothes, money, and traveling documents.
Instead of running off to the US embassy - I'll be nice and assume that there isn't one there - Amy decides to do every sensible romance heroine stranded in such a situation always end up doing: she decides to try out for a job. No, she's not trying out to be a governess - that's a premise almost exclusively reserved for historical romances. Amy applies to be the housekeeper for a reclusive American millionaire called Gaspar. She encounters a handsome man who calls himself Gaspar's assistant. She doesn't know at first that Lance Beaufort is actually Gaspar.
Lance is a wealthy Hollywood movie producer who decides, like all these rich folks always do, that life is superficial and meaningless. Instead of donating his money to charity, he naturally decides to find enlightenment by moving to Gustavia to live like a recluse. Clearly, being artificial and miserable is still preferable to being poor. At any rate, Lance is attracted to Amy but decides that she's too good for him so naturally he has to woo her under yet another identity of his. Is this how a man treats a woman that he feels is way out of his league? In the real world, Lance will be considered a creep. Oh well, this is a romance novel.
Too Perfect is filled with characters behaving foolishly for the most part, and the reader has to be patient and tolerate such foolishness in order to get to the good part. Which is to say, Ms Ortolon is clearly aware of her characters' failings and she will make them talk like guests on Oprah's show in order to psychoanalyze their blues away at the end of the day. While I am pleased that these characters for once accept responsibility for their own failings instead of blaming their nonsense on other people or their past, Ms Ortolon however deals with the characters' pulling up their socks so heavy handedly that the whole story feels like a morality tale. Or a script for a pilot episode targeted at the Oxygen network, if you will.
The characters talk as if they are reciting aloud from a transcript of a talk show about dealing with one's fears, but what makes the whole story feel even more artificial is how a character who has seen the light becomes so wise in order to prop up the other person. Here, Lance suddenly becomes a tao guru of sorts as he starts lecturing Amy on how she is just wearing masks and she is letting herself be manipulated by her grandmother into remaining in a rut. I suppose one can say that perhaps almost losing Amy makes him wise, but here, it's more like he hasn't just wised up, he has actually discovered his true calling to become the new self-help guru of the new millennium.
Still, I have to admit that this book has plenty of pleasant moments. I especially like how Ms Ortolon treats Amy's grandmother in the story. The grandmother can be considered a villain, but she's not really a villain, just someone who is in her own rut and is looking for her own way out of her rut. Ms Ortolon has a pretty good idea about her characters' strengths and weaknesses and she attempts to have them come to their own and find themselves in a way that is intelligent and sensible. Unfortunately, the author also does her thing so heavy handedly that her characters come off more like talking heads from a talk show rather than real people. In other words, this is a good read, but at the same time it is also a very artificial one.
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