Still Mr. & Mrs.
by Mary McBride, contemporary (2002)
Warner, $5.99, ISBN 0-446-61128-X

Readers, I apologize if I am reading a book that is somehow different from your version of Still Mr. & Mrs.. Nora Roberts mentions "the hoops of passion and danger" in her glowing recommendation on the front cover. The great Harriet Klausner calls this book "a fast paced thriller". The cover has a pair of silhouettes, male and female, posing Avengers-style with guns.

But what I get instead is a character-driven romantic drama mired in a pretty implausible plot. The heroine never even holds a gun, as far as I can remember, even if she is in secret service. Maybe you Americans get a different Still Mr. & Mrs., I don't know, but this slow-paced drama is not what I'd call "fast paced hoops of danger thriller" even if you get me to drink sixteen glasses of beer first.

Angela Callifano and Robert "Bobby" Holland are the best of the Secret Service. They are also at the brink of divorce, thanks to the death of brother Billy. When threats to the life of the First Mother (or whatever you call the President's mother) reaches the Prez's doorstep, he has Secret Services assign two estranged agents who can't even talk to each other well to protect First Mam. Yeah, right. And here's the Eiffel Tower, $2.99 and it's yours, please.

What do bodyguards do? Set up burglar alarms and high tech gadgetry around the house? Or at least perform routine surveillance 24/7 in a special room filled with computers? No. In this book, Angela serves tea and Bobby waters the gardens as they pose as married staff to the First Mam. At one point, the three of them plan to watch movies together. In the dark of the theatre, sixty knives can plunge right into First Mam's back before our hero and our heroine can act.

Somehow the idea of incompetent Secret Service Agents that spend all their time indulging in their personal drama rather than actually doing their duty, well, with a real life Republican USA president about to cause the whole Middle-East to do an even worse Apocalypse Now scenario at this time of writing, well, this book's not that funny anymore. This book's Republican president is constantly heckled by his tasteless mother. I'm no Democrat (not even American), but I think Democrats will either snigger evilly or imbibe some alcohol to ease the pain. But seriously, incompetent Secret Service people playing heroes are pretty bad as a plot. Which is why I wonder why Mary McBride chooses to use this plot in the first place.

Because Still Mr. & Mrs. is actually a pretty good character-driven drama. This book starts out like a typical screwball wackjob - it is said that the First Mam, Daisy, shoots agents with blank bullets. I shudder in terror, but to my surprise, Crazy Daisy is actually one of the most human characters in this story. Brittle yet nursing genuine grief in her heart, she is actually a resilient survivor who finds romance second time around. She's no matchmaking dotty, just a very elegantly written human character whose hard exterior hides the fact that she and Bobby, the hero, are actually two of a kind.

Bobby is also a very appealing character. A man of action, he is really unable to deal with Billy's death, and while he doesn't make an issue of it, it's because of his family background. Raised by an alcoholic single mother, he single-handedly keeps his family together since an early age, and in the process, he emphasizes actions over talk and pretty words. He still doesn't get it until it's almost too late, but his getting there almost puts a tear in my eye. There's something heartbreaking about a man whose actions are practically screaming in confusion - he has no idea how to tell Angela that he wants her still and he has never stopped loving her, but he just doesn't know how to tell her. Poor, poor guy, really, and oh, what heartbreaking seductiveness it is to follow Bobby. "I want to be what you want. Angela, I have to be what you want. Jesus. I can't lose you," he cries at one point, and I have to press my hand against my chest. I hurt, truly.

The weakest link of the three main characters here is Angela. While Daisy and Bobby are characters to root for, Angela's character is the most shoddiest written of the three. For one, what exactly happened to Billy, I don't really know. How exactly does Angela feel? She seems more petulant than in grief, and since she spends the entire book but one chapter (guess which chapter) keeping Bobby away at arm's length, the lack of clear questions to her motivations become exasperating. Bobby is trying, but just because he can't say pretty words she wanted him to say in a script she never showed him, she can't? She keeps telling me that she loves him, but she can't have him because... why? At one point, I think I may understand her, because she tells Bobby, "I want you to cry, Bobby. That's all. I just want you to cry." This makes sense. In a way, she is asking him to share with her his grief. But what happens next is she not listening to Bobby at all. He is ready to talk to her. Yet she just keeps pushing him away, and I just don't understand why.

Worse, a Hollywood star is also in love with her. Again, what the heck did these two guys see in such a lifeless, whiny, perpetually sourpuss robot?

In a really bad misfire, the author loses her final chance to redeem Angela. In the last few chapters, when the long sleeping Threatening First Mam Thing finally kicks into first gear, when Bobby and Daisy bond over their experiences, this is also time for Angela to show me who she is. But where is Angela? Somewhere else. Ms McBride has sent Angela to the sidelines (whining to Daddy as she runs away from Bobby and Daisy), making this the Daisy and Bobby show instead. I like the Daisy and Bobby show, but this is at the expense of what little left of Angela's characterization.

In the end, Bobby and Daisy deserve much better than a badly-drawn selfish and self-absorbed heroine and a plot that is just plain ridiculous. These two manage to generate enough electrifying heartfelt moments and compelling characterization to make this a slightly above average romantic drama. But Ms McBride doesn't quite succeed in the drama, thanks to her sketchy portrayal of Angela.

Still, Ms McBride tries. She could have followed the path she sets out in Chapters One and Two, rendering Daisy into a kooky over-the-top matchmaker and emphasizing slapstick screwball over the romance. Instead, she chooses to take time in carefully fleshing out Bobby and Daisy until they are larger-than-life characters with pretty real strengths, weaknesses, and emotions. If she has set up her plot more carefully and spent as much time on Angela as she had on Bobby, Still Mr. & Mrs. would have been a revelation.

If you happen to read the fast-paced action version of this book that has Nora Roberts so enthralled, well, good for you. But I wouldn't have missed reading this twilight zone version of mine for all the world - Bobby Holland breaks my heart and steals away the pieces, and damn if I didn't feel glorious inside.

Rating: 88

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