Body Language
by Millie Criswell, contemporary (2004)
HQN, $6.50, ISBN 0-373-77011-1

Millie Criswell's previous contemporary romances for Ivy are very discordant and cluttered by what seems like a million crazy, rude, and vulgar secondary characters. Wading through these books can be compared to trying to push my way through a heavy crowd of screaming teenaged girls in a boyband concert. Now that she has settled down into writing for HQN, Ms Criswell has wisely toned down the noise-to-signal ratio and only has one colorful character - the heroine's mother.

Ellinore Peters is an UN interpreter. She has a dog, a nice apartment, and some friends with whom she can give advice to. However, she just learned that her new boss is Michael Deavers, her ex-boyfriend whom she nearly married until he got cold feet. That's not all. Her mother tells her that her father is having an online affair with some woman and therefore Rosemary Peters is moving in with Ellie "indefinitely". Ellie is made to feel like a little girl all over again soon enough.

This book is good until page 80, after which it quickly falls to pieces. Michael wants Ellie back and apparently he has never stopped thinking of her despite years having passed between them. So what does he do? Put the moves on her that make her irritated and annoyed. Become deliberately antagonistic. Take a page out of the sexual harassment behavioral guidebook. Then again, if Michael does the sensible thing and woo and dine the heroine, this book won't have be that long and Ms Criswell will be submitting a short story instead of a full-length novel.

The playground "I am making you cry because I like you, hee-hee-hee!" little kiddie antics between Michael and Ellie aren't improved with Ms Criswell's way with comedy. I think Ms Criswell is the only author I've come across who underestimates the intelligence of her readers so much that she delivers her punchlines either in italics or caps, liberally peppered with exclamation marks as if they are running out of fashion, in case I can somehow miss Ms Criswell's punchlines. The humor relies perhaps a little too much on shallow and exaggerated behaviors on the characters' part. For example, Michael believes that Ellie must hate hate hate him all these years because he assumes that her refusing to be charmed when he deliberately mocks her within her colleagues' hearing must be a clear evidence of sheer hatred. After all, how can any woman resist such a charming declaration of love from a man? The antics of the characters are so amped up to a point where it's hard to take them seriously, such as one of Ellie's friend who would rather leave her husband and kids instead of telling the man that she doesn't want them to move next door to his mother (apparently she doesn't want to hurt their feelings too much).

I'm not saying that such exaggerated scenarios can't be funny - they can be, or sitcoms like Arrested Development won't be such a joy to watch. But with Ms Criswell throwing italics or caps at me every few paragraphs, I feel like I'm reading a story written by someone who is about to erupt into hysterical laughter due to some impending nervous breakdown. This book is like the product of an amateur comedienne who is so desperate to get people laughing yet she doesn't trust them to get her jokes.

This is a pity because Ms Criswell skims superficially some issues that would have been compelling if explored further, such as the efforts in trying to keep a marriage alive after decades of familiarity with each other. But Ms Criswell proceeds to wrap things up in a ridiculously simplistic manner, where everything miraculously becomes alright again after a hug and some superficial chit-chat.

Perhaps Ms Criswell is trying too hard when it comes to the wrong things in this book. Instead of trying too hard to second-guess me in case I don't laugh at her punchlines to the point that she all but jumps up and down before my face while screaming, "See? See? FUNNY!", maybe she should have tried harder in tightening her plots and characters so that the story doesn't come off like a reject subplot from Full House.

Rating: 53

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