Ms. Simon Says
by Mary McBride, contemporary (2004)
Warner, $5.99, ISBN 0-446-61374-6

I am aware of this belief going around that romance readers are supposed to be people so in need of some vicarious escape that the only kind of books they will enjoy are stories that have no footing on reality whatsoever and tailor-made specifically for them to get off in their own personal fantasies. The readers themselves reinforce this unfortunate belief by going on and on about how they don't want ten thousand things in their books, things ranging from petty like wanting only heroines that fit the descripion of themselves to bewilderingly rigid themes like no politics whatsoever in the stories.

Ms. Simon Says is an extreme example of a book catering to this belief: it uses the premise of a heroine being stalked by a mail-bomber that has killed other people and dumbs down this premise into a plodding, light-hearted "bodyguard and me" romp, in a story where the authorities treat this mail-bomb scenario as nothing more serious than a mere stalker problem despite equating it to a possible terrorist attack. The result is a story that feels utterly artificial in every way.

Shelby Simon is a popular columnist for the Chicago Daily Mirror and her agony aunt column Ms Simon Says is syndicated in other national newspapers as well. She's so popular that she is like the female Ryan Seacrest, overexposed for so little reason: she has billboards and what-not all over Chicago. When I actually read the snippets of her advice, which consists usually of banal sentiments in the vein of "it will be okay, hold on" with no actual concrete advice given to accompany such banality, I don't know why she's that big, but then again, read the first paragraph of this review. Anyway, Shelby wakes up one morning to learn that several letters containing explosives had gone off, and she later learns that these letters are addressed to Ms Simon Says. Because this is a Serious Case, they get a cop, Mick Callahan, to bodyguard her as she goes to her parents' refurbished lake home. Wow, I bet the bomber will never think of looking for her there. Good job, genius!

And that's it. No FBI or other Very Serious Enforcers swooping in and grilling Shelby with Very Important Questions over a long period of time, no high security protection program, just Shelby and Mick spending the next two hundred pages worrying about trivial things like love and kissy-wissies.

Shelby is very hard to empathize with. At first, I tell myself that her silly actions and defiance of Mick's reasonable precautionary measures are due to her shock - it is understandable that she may need to lash out at someone and Mick is the most convenient target. But soon, she seems to have forgotten about the threat on her life. A few pages after she first met Mick, she is wondering whether he has a wife. Later, she will moan and groan whether he really likes her when his hands are doing funny things to her. Maybe it's just me in that if my life is in danger, what I want first and foremost is that the cop, no matter how annoying he is, gets to keep me alive until the villain is apprehended. I don't understand how Shelby can treat her retreat like some holiday fling by the lake.

Mick is a more realistic character in the sense that he is only an unprofessional cop thinking of getting into Shelby's pants, but at least he is trying to do his job. He is a familiar character with commitment baggages - a standard action hero, if you will. His romance with Shelby is very predictable, with the author taking the same old run-hot-or-cold let's-be-friends route without trying to do much to make things even a little different.

The secondary romance - a reconciliation between Shelby's estranged parents - fares better. Ms McBride also sets up the foundation for a sequel involving two secondary characters in a way that is not too subtle but not too blatant either. Some authors should study from Ms McBride about the right way to go about sequel-baiting.

But on the whole, what could have been a very familiar but still readable story is ruined by the author taking the sobering subject of a bombing tragedy and turning it into an excuse for some people to frolic and have sex by the lake. I don't know about anyone else, but in a post-9/11 world, it is rather hard to believe that a bombing incident won't be taken more seriously by the characters in a story set in the present day. Ms McBride asks me to suspend my disbelief, but in the case of Ms. Simon Says, she's asking from me a little too much.

Rating: 68

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