All She Ever Wanted
by Barbara Freethy, contemporary (2004)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-21365-3

It has to happen sooner or later, so here it is, Barbara Freethy's first and probably not the last foray into the land of dead bodies, romance, and a mystery that is laughably constructed. It's the same old story that happens so many times whenever an author decides to branch out into stories involving dead bodies. It is a good thing that Barbara Freethy manages to tell an entertaining, if not too compelling, story involving stereotypes trying to convince me that Ms Freethy is the new love child of Leonard Elmore and Rebecca Wells.

Natalie Bishop and her Fabulous Four buddies see their friendship cracked when their ringleader, Emily Parish, falls to her death from the roof college sorority house. See, I told people again and again that having sex on the roof while being as high as a kite can be dangerous, but did they listen? No, of course not. Okay, I'm kidding about the sex on the roof part. As these stories tend to go, Emily is the happy one so of course she dies because people are only happy if they have dark and mysterious secrets in this type of stories. The remaining three friends are Natalie (the bookish and responsible one who feels guilty because she can't remember a thing about that night of Natalie's death and she has always taken care of Emily), Laura (the girl next door), and Madison (the resident "adventurous" and "rich" - read: token Democrat - girl). Please try not to cause a blood vessel to rupture from trying to deduce who the main heroine of this story is.

College is long over today. Natalie is finally on her way to being a doctor - yay. Quick, guess: is she happy? However, her career may be in joepardy when an author, Garrett Malone, publishes a book where the story resembles too closely the events leading to Emily's death. Worse, Natalie's alter-ego in the book is implicated as the murderer, causing Emily's family to howl for her blood. As Natalie and her friends try to figure out how and how much Garrett knows about the circumstances behind Emily's death, Natalie has an ally in Cole, Emily's brother, who believes in Natalie's innocence and who is also conveniently a reporter. The hospital is agog because in Barbara Freethy's story, Americans cannot and will not bring themselves to a go to a hospital where one of their interns was implicated in a murder based on flimsy evidences from a freaking book. Since we are talking about a country where the previous President introduced the word "impeachment" to the general public and the current President whose life story isn't all gold and glory, I find it hard to believe that so much uproar is raised over what is pretty much a witch hunt in the first place.

Never mind, I just imagine that somehow John Ashcroft or his son has become the President, which probably explains the overblown hysteria taking place in the story. Because this book fancies itself a women's fiction book, there is romance between Cole and Natalie but the romance is not developed enough to stand out. Ms Freethy tries to tell me that Natalie and Cole experience great soul-searching and revelations about each other when they finally fall in love again, but frankly, the whole thing comes off as two people who try so hard to be unhappy deciding to be in love just because they are together again. Why waste energy trying to be happy and actually searching for Mr or Mrs Right when they can just shag and then focus the rest of their energy on being gloomy? There are also many subplots involving Laura and the rest of the ensemble cast, although these subplots are typical, predictable stories starring familiar stereotypes.

When the identity of Emily's murderer seems obvious, Ms Freethy decides to surprise me by revealing that the villain is another person. Bad mistake. You know, when it comes to writing mysteries, authors cannot cheat and just pull the villain's identity out of nowhere and laughs, "Hah! Fool ya! All evidences seem to point of this person but I tricked you because it is this other person who is the villain and I don't care if by making this person the villain I am making not much sense because the bottomline is, I fooled you, ha ha ha!". It just won't do because it requires more work than pulling out random red herrings out of nowhere to create a decent and compelling mystery.

All She Ever Wanted is a well-written excursion into familiar women's fiction territory with the added bonus of a mystery that fizzles out towards the climax. The treatment of romance, friendship, and familiar emotional baggages of the walking wounded are hardly original but at the same time, I find the author's handling of these issues enjoyable enough to keep reading because Ms Freethy is a compelling storyteller who knows how to keep me turning the page. "Familiar" and "boring" aren't always the same thing. But on the other hand, I often find the author's attempts at tackling the suspense and investigative elements of her story clumsy and even amateurish at places.

Maybe Ms Freethy will become more adept at creating tighter mystery plots in the future, maybe not, I don't know. All She Ever Wanted, while not the worst attempt by an author to steer away from romance towards more "mainstream" elements in her books, can't hide the fact that the author is still feeling her way around when it comes to this new direction of hers. For now, reading this book won't hurt, but at the same time, I don't think I can recommend anyone to go rush out and buy this book either if this person isn't a fan. Maybe if there is nothing that the person really wants to read and this book just happens to cross the person's way, that sort of thing, but otherwise, this is just another mainstream story in a saturated market.

Rating: 75

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