The Damsel In This Dress
by Marianne Stillings, contemporary (2004)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-057533-6

Marianne Stillings' debut romance novel The Damsel In This Dress has a nice, glitzy wrapping but the meat of the story is the same old, more old actually. Unfortunately, this "old" also contains a heroine who keeps depreciating her own looks for so long that her whine becomes stale really fast. She isn't too smart either. I am still wondering what the hero J Soldier McKennitt see in her long after I'm done with the book. Let's see, he thinks she's beautiful, has that aura of "innocence" that so many romance heroes love to fetishize, but... what else? Contrary to what the book package tries to sell me, Elizabeth Tremaine is really a damsel in distress. Maybe that's it. The man wants a pet with big breasts that he can sleep with without having to fear getting arrested for unnatural sex acts.

The story really starts out fun. Betsy is the editor of Port Henry Ledger, a small-time newsprint with a small run, who also does a book review or two. She doesn't like Soldier's mystery stories and keeps panning every book of his in her reviews. As every other romance author will tell you, what Betsy is doing is really wrong. After all, if she doesn't like a book, she should turn down the book and pass it to a fellow reviewer who adores the book and hence puts up a glowing review. That's how things should be done in Romance Novel Land! Needless to say, Betsy is going to fall down hard. Someone starts stalking her and doing nasty things to her mother's ancient dog Piddles. (And no, it's not a romance author or a member of the Doggy Euthanasia Mercy Society.)

Betsy is already involved in the start of a beautiful correspondence with Soldier when they actually meet face-to-face in the Northwest Crime and Punishment Writer's Conference. No, that is not another name for an RWA gathering - don't listen to ugly rumors, people. Naturally he has to know who she is first so that he can push a few screws into Betsy's joints to get her agitated like a marionette controlled by an epileptic drunkard. The pattern is set for the tone of the relationship from hereon: Betsy will either be flustered, agitated, aroused, seduced, or be protected by Soldier. See the pattern here? She can't keep up with Soldier in the sense that Soldier is always the one to take action that will move the story along.

Soldier is a fun hero. He won't be the most original hero around by being an ex-detective with typical "I failed my friend! Ai, I am haunted by guilt!" baggages but he has the right amount of playful roguishness, rough edge, protective instincts, and reliability to make him a compelling and attractive lead character. On the other hand, I really try to be patient with Betsy. She is written as a woman with self-esteem issues and I am okay with that. But Ms Stillings overplays Betsy's issues for too long. If I am given some insight as to why Betsy really believes that she is unattractive, I will probably see her in more favorable light but here all I get is Betsy just insisting that Soldier can't really want her for long-term. If the stalker ties her up and puts a gag over her mouth, I'd marry the stalker. Also, Betsy tries to pull off some silly stunts based on impulses rather than logic but Soldier is fortunately always around to stop her before things go out of hand.

I like Ms Stillings' voice. Part of the reason why I really enjoy this book despite Betsy trying her best to sabotage my experience is because Ms Stillings has a lively, upbeat way with humor and her ability to dish out red-hot crackling sexual tension between her leads doesn't hurt either. It also helps that Ms Stillings demonstrates that she knows when Betsy is being a silly goose. Her problem here is that while she has self-awareness concerning her characters, Ms Stillings doesn't quite succeed in balancing Betsy's more sensible side with her more annoying neurotic side.

While the characters and their relationship hold very few surprises for a long-time reader, I have a feeling that the setting, the humor, the sexual chemistry, and the decent romantic suspense elements will appeal to readers looking for a new romantic suspense-comedy to try out. While not a standout keeper, The Damsel In This Dress does help Marianne Stillings stand out as an author who has some potential to deliver something really good. Even if she is writing for Avon, heh.

Rating: 79

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