The Sparkling One
by Susan Mallery, contemporary (2003)
Pocket, $6.49, ISBN 0-7434-4394-2

There is nothing better than a lousy gimmick and trite plot to ruin a well-written hero and heroine, is there? Susan Mallery's latest, The Sparkling One, seems more like a desperate attempt to grab a spot on the New York Times bestseller lists than anything, because it is laden with the current "saleable" gimmicks overused in too many contemporary romances today. Alas, if the author has pressed the brakes on her kamikaze bandwagon to success and pondered things a little, she would have realized that her characters in The Sparkling One don't need such frou-frous and fripperies.

The gimmick here is that a couple of sisters - all with books lined up in the upcoming months, naturally - coming from the Marcelli clan where everyone is pressured to be married by eighteen. Let me say this: I grew up in an environment best described as the Marcelli with the chauvinism racked up a few notches higher, and I don't find anything amusing about such "romantic" family. I'm not proud to say that growing up in such a family wedged a rift between me and father that took a long, long time to start mending. Therefore, there is always some discomfiture inside of me as I turn the pages of The Sparkling One, because I am jaded enough not to view over-controlling fathers and the mafia of mothers and sisters-in-law and wives as even a little amusing.

Before you start saying that I am confusing "gimmick" with "issues", let me explain that I call the family angle here "gimmick" because it never adds anything of value to the story other than some attempt at continuity in between books. The characters and the romance will not suffer if the family disperse and leave the main couple alone. The only reason there is a Marcelli clan is because Susan Mallery wants you to buy all three books she has coming out and ensure that her publisher won't get mad at her and drop her back to oblivion. Pocket signed up quite many authors recently, I hear - common sense will suggest that it's quite crowded at Pocket and there may be some trimming of the fat from the bones if one doesn't sell enough to meet the bottom line.

In The Sparkling One, Katie Marcelli and Zach Stryker are trapped in a familiar plot more typical of a series novel: her niece and his nephew are getting married, and Zach is against this marriage. He hires Katie to do the catering, but he has some dirty plots hatching in his mind to sabotage the wedding. He intends to get Katie's help, by hook or by crook. Add in his meddling ways and her meddling family, and the first half of the book is pure excruciating agony to plough through as plot contrivances after plot contrivances just swamp the pages.

It is only in the later half, once the main characters have to confront the consequences of their nonsense, only then does The Sparkling One becomes a good read. The problems are real, the characters deal with them in a manner that suggests that they may be human beings instead of cardboard cutouts after all, and some of the plot finally makes some sense.

The Sparkling One isn't a bad book at all, I think. It just tries so hard to be a bad and contrived piece of disposable fluff because this is what sells nowadays apparently - how sad, how sad. Which means, if these fluff sells, there must be plenty of readers out there that like these sort of contrived stories populated by mostly unrealistic scenarios and over-meddlesome family members. Personally, I find myself wishing that The Sparkling One is an all-out horrible book. That way, I won't realize that Susan Mallery has a good book in mind, only that she has to overdecorate it with garish "Come Buy Me" ornamentations that ruin almost everything good about the book. After all, I'd rather be merely annoyed by an inept author than be driven to feel even more disillusioned with the romance genre in general.

Rating: 74

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