Material Girl
by Julia London, contemporary (2003)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-19123-0

I really don't understand why rich heroes can slut and whore and do whatever they want, but when the heroine becomes rich - wham! There comes the fly swatter. Why is this? Is this some "old 1940 movies" nostalgia thing, you know, "the old days" nonsense when "men are men" and "women are women"? Julia London's perplexing Material Girl is another "rich girl find happiness in the paper bag of upper middle-class surburbania" tale. The heroine is from money. So of course she has to be taught that Money Isn't Everything and in the end, she quits her high-flying job to settle in some lovely suburban living with her middle-class husband happily ever after. Who needs money anyway? Let's buy this author's books used!

I call this book "perplexing" because the gimmick the author uses to sell her series to Berkley never manages to fit into the actual story. The gimmick in question is the author's retro play on King Lear and his three daughters Gonorrhea, Rogaine, and Cordummia. Here, Aaron Lear is an absent father who learns that he is going to die soon. So he summons his ex-wife, and that stupid woman comes running straight away. He then summons his three daughters and decide that while he has neglected his raising his daughters in the past, he's now going to rectify the problem by fixing his presumably dysfunctional daughters.

And the thing is, Aaron Lear decides to rectify eldest daughter Robin's life by... how? I don't know. The events of this book that involve Robin and the middle-class hero Jake Manning are already taking place without Aaron's interference. These two's story is taking place very nicely, and Aaron's "interference" seems like a weak attempt to remind me that there's some half-baked gimmick going on here to get me to buy the next two books in the series.

Robin is having a bad day. The guy she has hired to renovate her big house is not being very cooperative. Then comes the news that her father is very sick. She goes for a drive, is stopped by a cop for speeding, forgets her IDs, mouths off to the cop, and is thrown into the can as a result. Then she remembers that she has left her coffeepot on at her office, and she returns to find the office in a blaze of glory - literally. She does not need to know that the man who is so rude to her at the courthouse is the same man she has hired to fix her pool - Jake Manning.

Jake Manning is from the streets and he is what one can call a self-made man. Not that he's rolling in money or anything, but he has a job (three, actually) and he has plans for the future. He has to take care of his rebellious nephew who is running with a bad crowd, and his exhausted mother isn't too much of a help. The last thing he needs is to fall for the spoiled lil' rich girl he is working for. Right?

The story starts out with Robin apparently being one of those scary mega-klutzy heroines, but soon the author settles down and tones down the farcical elements of her story. Robin becomes a little more human and she becomes a much better character from thereon. I really enjoy reading her interactions with Jake. This is a romance where the characters actually exchange barbs and repartees with genuine warmth underlying each exchange. The author gets the chemistry of her characters right - Robin and Jake may come from different stations in life, but soon it becomes evident that there are many tiny little things in each person that make them get along so well. Ms London also doesn't flinch from letting Robin stay true with character - Robin remains a little spoiled, a little misguided, and always adorable.

I really therefore don't understand why Robin has to be heavy-handedly reformed by the author the way she did in the last few chapters. Robin seems normal. If she can't handle her job, that's because nobody teaches her anything. Aaron flat-out says that he expects his daughter to remain pretty and nothing more. If there is any reformation to be done, it should be Robin telling her father to stick his head where the sun never shines on elephants instead of embracing the middle-class happiness myth.

As for Aaron, I really don't know where he fits in this story. He wants to send Robin to work at a styrofoam plant, but this subplot is never crucial to the story at all. He wants Robin to get together with Evan, who in the tradition of other guys in romance novels never surprise or deviate from his predictable actions and personality, and let's just say Evan and Robin aren't meant to be at all. All Aaron does in this story is to make his ex-wife wait on him hand and foot and use his illness as an excuse to make a lot of bluster that adds little value to the story. In short, if Aaron isn't in this story, Material Girl will still reach the same ending. Robin and Jake are already falling in love without Aaron's laughable attempts at reparations. The later portions of the book see Jake's troubles with his nephew becoming more prominent. The sick father subplot may be a way to tie three books into a trilogy and convince the editor at Berkley to offer Julia London a contract, but it's just a gimmick, and a gimmick that isn't cohesive with the story and serves as a distraction to boot.

I must admit that on the whole, my overall reaction to Material Girl is a little bit of befuddlement. This book starts out like some over-the-top physical comedy, but the middle portions are really good romance starring two characters that really click together so well, and the later portions of the book are of the familiar, derivative sorts where clichés rear their ugly heads in the resolution. I have a really wonderful time savoring the developing relationships between Jake and Robin. But with this book trying too hard to be a novelty and a derivative and safe familiar read for fragile femme readers, it ends up instead channeling its confusion about its actual raison d'etre to me from every turn of the page.

Maybe if Julia London stops trying so hard to sell a novelty that isn't actually a novelty and writes more for her readers instead of selling her books as Happy Meal toys to her publishers, she'll produce a really good book in this new contemporary romance direction she's taking. After all, take away the gimmicks and I will find a really good dialogue-driven romance in Material Girl. That's why I'm giving this book a favorable grade (with much reservations, to be honest). Add in the gimmicky stuffs and derivative plot developments though, and this book ends up a bizarre testament to the success of capitalistic mediocrity in overruling artistic freedom and creativity. The unfunny irony is, the "new and improved" Robin Lear at the end of the book may not approve of this at all.

Rating: 83

PS: If you're a fan of Once And Again, you may want to take a pen and change the name of the hero a little bit, maybe to, oh, Rick Sammler?

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