by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, contemporary (2004)
William Marrow & Co, $23.95, ISBN 0-06-621124-7
This is one really confused book. I don't know what Susan Elizabeth Phillips is trying to do here, seriously. She doesn't seem to know whether she wants me to emphatize with the heroine or not. On one hand, she takes a former high school bitch heroine and gives her a past so tortured that the heroine all but screams, "Pity me! Love me! I'm so tortured!" On the other hand, Ms Phillips' idea of "redemption" is to degrade and humiliate the heroine so badly from the first page to last that I cringe and wonder what the heck happened to forgiveness and understanding. Reading this book is like having to suffer to the worst Sunday school session where repentance is the norm while forgiveness is never forthcoming.
Sugar Beth Carey was the high school snooty bitch that ruled the roost before running off to seek fame and glory in the city lights. But as they always end up doing, she goes through failed marriages and financial disasters before coming home to Parrish, Mississipi with her tail between her legs. In the welcoming committee is Winnie Davis Gallantine and the entire town of Parrish willing to commit unspeakable humilation acts on Sugar Beth in the name of petty revenge. Among these jerks is Colin Byrne, who uses his history with Sugar Beth as well as his friendship with Sugar Beth's ex as an excuse to abet the humiliation.
Look, I was a nerd in school and I had a few revenge fantasies over the years, but high school was years ago and I, like a normal person would, get over it and move on with life. That guy that chased me all around college teasing me mercilessly about a (non-existent) crush I had on a lecturer, for example. There was this incident where I broke down in tears after he passed around a letter he cruelly made up detailing my purported sexual fantasies with this lecturer all around the lecture theatre one day. But he apologized for that when we met years later at the reunion. We can talk amicably nowadays because when we were young, we were stupid, and now that we are adults, we can try and put all that behind us. Heck, I've done some things I'm not proud of when I was Sugar Beth's age. I was a nerd, but I was a stuck-up snob too who thought I was too good for people I thought less intelligent than me. I'd love to meet a few people and apologize if I ever have the chance.
So yes, while I do understand Parrish's idea of holding a grudge, I do not respect them for holding a grudge for seventeen years. It's pathetic. The whole town is pathetic. I find myself feeling outraged when Winnie does so many petty things just to publicly humiliate Sugar Beth and I feel disgusted for Sugar Beth to meekly submit to the degradation. Yes, Sugar Beth was a bitch seventeen years ago, but the people of Parrish, in stooping to be as low as Sugar Beth was when Sugar Beth was immature, are worse than her. Colin is no better - he throws Sugar Beth to the wolves and his heroic moment in this story is tantamount to running away and leaving Sugar Beth to face alone one last collective humiliation from Parrish, clearly the forerunner in the competition to be the new Salem's Lot of the millennium.
As for Sugar Beth, she is already beating herself up so it's pointless for Ms Phillips to have the people of Parrish to keep kicking her when she's down. The irony here is that Winnie has everything that Sugar Beth always wanted, so Winnie's actions smack of nothing more than pointless cruelty. I can understand Colin's anger at Sugar Beth, and his reasons are the only ones that don't come off as mere pettiness in motion. At the end of the day, it's really a shame that Sugar Beth thinks so lowly of herself that she lets them treat her like this.
What confuses me here is how the author tries to simultaneously justify Sugar Beth's past as well as the current behavior of the people of Parrish, especially Colin's. But at the end of the day, there is really no point to this story. Unlike some people, I have never found the author to have any way with credible character development and plausible behavior, if her previous books with their abundance of ridiculous puritannical sexual behavior and silly romance clichés are anything to go by. But Ain't She Sweet? takes the cake as the lowest of this author's low: it is nothing more than an exercise in frustrating blood pressure elevation - a revenge of the geek fantasy turned into a monstrous nightmare where even this former geek is appalled at the cruelty of Sugar Beth's tormentors. The puritannical hell-and-brimstone eye-for-an-eye approach to redemption here is way over-the-top and beyond justification. The cruelty of the townspeople of Parrish is nothing more than an inept attempt at manipulating me into shedding tears for Sugar Beth.
Look, we have forgiven romance heroes for worse sins than Sugar Beth's, so I don't understand why the author chooses to "redeem" Sugar Beth this way. Gee, I don't see the author giving, for example, her hero in Lady Be Good the reversed-Carrie treatment! This book is the epitome of the ridiculous double standards the romance genre can smack on the heroines, and I have a really bad taste in my mouth at the end of the day.
Even if I move away from the over-the-top antics of Parrish and the equally over-the-top self-esteem issues of Sugar Beth, this book is filled with lamentably shoddy plot twists. Blackmail? Forced marriage? The super predictable and amateurish way the author makes Sugar Beth prove her "worth" to Parrish? Puh-leese. I have no idea how this author can get away with her super-contrived plots. Maybe it's just that she's funny and funny can go a long away to cover up a multitude of sins. Whatever the reason is, I have a strong feeling that this is the last book I will read from the ridiculously overrated Susan Elizabeth Phillips.
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