Beauty Queen
by Julia London, contemporary (2004)
Berkley, $7.50, ISBN 0-425-19524-4

Firstly, I believe that congratulations are in order to Julia London for making the $7.50 mark. Judging from the way the author has managed to deliver some consistently good stories with above average characterizations in her last few books, it can't happen to a more appropriate author. Having said that, Beauty Queen is similar to the previous book in the series, Material Girl in tone, strengths, and weaknesses. You like one, you'll like the other, I believe. Conversely, hate one, hate the other.

Beauty Queen is a familiar Fly Swatter story though. Where Material Girl teaches the heroine that There's More To Life Than Being Wealthy, here, heroine Rebecca Lear has self-esteem issues despite having some success in the beauty pageant circuit. Her life takes on a predictable arc - from Miss Texas to socialite to divorcee with nothing but a five-year old son and several subscriptions to various favorite heroine issues. Instead of moping and whining, however, Rebecca is inspired by Transformation Strategies self-help seminars to forge ahead in life with her chin held high. To do so, she'll need a job. Unfortunately, no one is hiring a woman without any qualifications or experiences - there is not much vacancies for socialiate wives and Daddy's dearest daughters nowadays.

Thanks to her being her father's daughter, Rebecca is enlisted to aid Tom Masters' quest to become Lt Governor of Texas. This pits her against lawyer Matt Parish, who dislikes the idea of someone of his calibre being forced to work with an empty-headed ditz. One thing I really like about this book is that while Rebecca isn't as bad as Matt assumes she is, she's not some misunderstood poor little girl either - she really is a ditz and she has to learn a few hard lessons before the story is over. But Matt isn't some know-it-all Mr Right either - he too will have to take some hard knocks down from his pedestal before the day is done.

I am very much tempted to just cut and paste some of the things I've written about the author's previous books. The characters are very likeable and the chemistry between them is unmistakable, no matter how badly the characters often behave towards each other at the start. Matt, especially, can be quite cringe-inducing in his arrogance and condescension while Rebecca can be really embarrassing. But Ms London doesn't allow one character to lord it over the other - the scene where these two really, really have had enough of the other's nonsense and the resulting showdown is one of the most amusing yet realistically painful scenes I've ever read.

Unlike Material Girl where the comedy works as well as the dramatic scenes, the humor in Beauty Queen is a little too much on the unimaginative side for it to really work with me. For example, I don't need to encounter another screaming, flaming, feminine gay secondary character that acts like a ten-year schoolgirl. There are also too many slapstick moments involving wacky old people for my liking, especially when the second half of the story exhibits a marked reduction of the slapstick moments and an increase in dramatic moments. I love the dramatic half of Beauty Queen, but this half and the comedic half don't seem to actually belong to the same book. And like Material Girl, the underlying thread tying this book with the other books in the trilogy - Aaron Lear's cancer - doesn't integrate itself well into the story and feels like some gratuitous addition that ends up coming off like a distraction instead.

For all its flaws though, I have a great time reading Beauty Queen thanks to the author's ability to build up a relationship between two characters using small and large moments that feel simultaneously real and romanticized at the same time. If I am being unduly hard on this book, it's probably because I can't help feeling that this book should and could have been so much better, especially without some of the more unimaginative and overdone jokes and punchlines littering especially the first half of the story. For now, Julia London remains to me a consistent author who for now may fall short of really delivering but deliver she does nonetheless.

Rating: 82

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