by Linda Francis Lee, contemporary (2004)
Ivy, $6.99, ISBN 0-345-46271-8
Suddenly Sexy is the first book in Linda Francis Lee's new romantic comedy trilogy. The cover illustrates this: the covers of the three books, when put together, form a bizarre scene of a crazy woman reclining on a... bed? car?... something while balancing a cake over her stomach as a man in tux stands behind her holding a bouquet of roses. It must be tricky balancing that cake. I hope she doesn't drop the cake and has it splatter all over her stomach. That will ruin the mood.
I like two things about this book. The author's cute misdirection in the prologue, for one. The exchange of emails between our heroine Kate Bloom and her colleagues/best friends lead me to believe that this is another derivative Virgin Gone Wild story but things aren't what they seem. That's okay. Another thing I like about this story is how the author defiantly tosses the TV show she shamelessly rips her characters out from, Sex In The City, at the reader's face. Kate watches Sex In The City marathons on TV and even drinks the same alcoholic beverage as Carrie Bradshaw. This way, Ms Lee can say that she's paying homage to the show and people will look churlish if they accuse her of doing some unimaginative photocopying, especially when these lady friends, especially one of them, can really use f-, c-, and p-words like nobody's business.
What I don't like about this book? Everything else. I don't find anything in this book particularly irritating, it's just that too much about the story doesn't work for me. Ms Lee carefully uses every overused contrivances in contemporary romance formulae in her story, but the end result is a clumsy and very obvious plot-by-number tale. I lost count of how many times I've groaned in disbelief or derision at the first few chapters alone.
Take, for example, Kate being yet another textbook romance heroine who is beautiful but at the same time convinced that she is not. She is also uptight, too serious, and as a network anchorperson, she's in danger of not communicating with her audience (apparently the Texans find her "too stiff-lipped"). Her friend Julia (the TV station ex-manager's daughter) - also the token sexually adventurous friend who also cusses like a sailor (sounds familiar, Sex In The City fans?) - has an idea: Kate will host a talk show where she will display the "warmer" side of hers! Get Real With Kate is in danger of becoming a one-episode wonder though because Kate is (a) having real terror about being on stage before a live audience with a Naked Chef, the neurotic idiot that she is, and (b) the chef doesn't show up.
This leads to Julia stumbling upon the prodigal son returneth, bad boy golfer Jesse Chapman, and leads him to help Kate plug the gap in her show left by the naughty MIA chef. Jesse has to be the boy that Kate had a crush on since she was fourteen. He left and she still carries a torch for him after all these years. Because Jesse is family by virtue of some Chapman marrying some Bloom a while back, as Julia says, Jesse must stay with Kate in the meantime instead of getting a room at the hotel! Because Kate cannot say no even if her friend is intruding in her life without a by-your-leave, she has to take Jesse in even if she whines and moans about how this sucks.
At this point, the author's clumsily transparent hoarding of hackneyed plot devices to get the hero and the heroine in close quarters has me shaking my head. The problem here is that Ms Lee is not a spontaneous author. She telegraphs everything that will happen to the reader at least two pages earlier. Ms Lee is so careful in following what seems like a rigid blueprint in her storytelling that she tells the story like one would write an educational text: nothing is alluded to, everything is foreshadowed blatantly. I can tell one chapter before it happens that Kate will try to seduce Jesse in a burst of courage only to find him in a compromising situation with one of the "bad" women in this story that will act as a foil to Kate. Kate's personality is laid bare the moment I am introduced to her, ditto Jesse's, and because these characters are not at all original, it doesn't take much to predict their actions for the rest of the story.
The author turns Kate into a truly unrealistic idiot, the kind that thrives only in romance novels: overly emotional, treats sex like some life-and-death matter, cannot even lust after a guy without acting as if she'll have to marry the man she lusts over (what nonsense), and totally neurotic. Jesse turns Kate into an even more creepy pedophile fantasy by constantly calling her "innocent" and "pure" (yes, "pure"). Instead of developing Kate into something at least a little human, the author instead chooses to introduce sexually voracious and greedy women wanting a piece of Jesse, as if I'm supposed to be so repulsed by these "impure" Jezebels that I'll find Kate a true and worthy soulmate for Jesse or something. I don't know, Ms Lee, I always feel that virginity is overrated and purity is always used as an euphemism for stupidity. I've stopped buying that argument that a good man will find true love with a sexually inexperienced woman after he's stopped sowing his wild oats because most of these men, I believe, aren't looking for wives as much as they are looking for mothers to cook for them, clean up after them, and reassure them that they are still loved after the millionth time they screw up.
And Kate, oh, that stupid woman. Ms Lee's biggest blunder in this book is her truly laughable pop psychology. Here, Kate has always known that Jesse is good. Or rather, as Kate says, Jesse is a "hero". Why a hero? I won't reveal why here, but I'll point out instead that Kate learns of Jesse's heroism from a third-party source and spends the whole book insisting that Jesse is a good man no matter what he puts her through. Kate also insists that she knows Jesse when she was a teenager, but what Ms Lee manages to convey in her flashback scenes is just this: Jesse didn't take advantage of the truly sexually clueless teenaged Kate back then. So, is this supposed to be enough to have Kate say that she will know that Jesse is good and true and heroic forever and ever?
The climax of this story has me laughing in disbelief. Jesse flings his sordid past in Kate's face and Kate doesn't even listen. Instead, she shoots self-justifications after self-justifications to Jesse's face, making all sorts of excuses for his behavior, telling him that nothing is his fault, everything is his father's fault, so he's always a hero to her. At the same time, Ms Pure and Innocent isn't above manipulating Jesse into a public situation that forces him to carry out the one act he has told her so many times that he doesn't want to do, because she's doing this for his own good, of course. Even when she realizes how monumentally selfish she is, she still eggs him on among the crowd. I don't believe this Kate creature - she's not only too neurotic to be human, she has to destroy the last shreds of likeability about her in this huge display of selfishness on her part.
Jesse is a better-drawn character but because he is paired with a robot frigid doll from Planet Dimwad, he never has to truly face any challenge in his path to redemption. Kate will always forgive him anyway for anything and everything. Because the author chooses to present the romance as a case of a heroine's blind infatuation unmoved by reason, Jesse's redemption is a cop-out. As for Kate, well, she's crazy. If Jesse dumps her, she'll definitely start boiling bunnies. He'll dump her soon, if you ask me, because from what I can see, her allure to him lies solely in her being the one that got away - the "pure" one. Now that Kate is no longer "pure", who will satisfy his Madonna-Whore complex now?
Also, the "friendship" of three heroines of this trilogy is truly irritating. There seem to be no boundaries between the three of them and I truly get fed up reading especially about Julia egging Kate on to tell her all the details of any possible sexual activity between Jesse and Kate. Ms Lee expects these emails to be funny but I find them truly intrusive and Julia's meddlesome nosiness suffocating. If Kate has a backbone and half a brain, she'd have told Julia to go sit on a broken vodka bottle. The three women don't come off as genuine friends as much as they are three women forced to get together for a trilogy.
Like Kate, Linda Francis Lee seems to have watched one episode of Sex In The City too many for her own good. This book screams "wannabe" all over the place. To make matters worse, this contemporary romance also has a staged and contrived feel in every twist and turn of the plot. Every bad series romance plot device - especially a crucial plot development (come on, take a guess) - is used here in the same unimaginative groan-inducing context. Compounding the problems is the heroine acting like a sociopathic stalkerish wide-eyed frigid Brigid ready to insist that the hero is a good man even if she finds him standing with a knife in his hand dripping with blood over the body of a dead old woman whose fingers managed to write in her own blood on the floor "Jesse Chapman murdered me because I wouldn't surrender my ice cream to him" right before she croaked.
Linda Francis Lee is at her worst when she gets lazy and uses sloppy, ridiculous pop psychology to get her heroine to redeem her hero. Here, the problem is worsened because she fails to give any of the clumsily inserted overused plot devices in the story her own interpretation. It's just clumsy block-by-block insertion here. This book could easily be called "A Collection of Overused Plot Devices, gathered by Linda Francis Lee". But then again, originality is never this author's strongest suit. Her strength lies in her using familiar plot devices to weave a melodramatic story. Now that she's writing romantic comedies, she strips away her story of any melodramatic angsts. Her weaknesses, especially her tendency to borrow whole-sale overused plot devices without providing much of her own style and take to them, are amplified as a result. In her old style, I can read a book and immediately know that I am reading a Linda Francis Lee book. Now, I'm more likely to read a little into Simply Sexy and wonder, aghast, at how this horribly unoriginal and clunkily put-together book can actually get published.
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