Sighs Matter
by Marianne Stillings, contemporary (2006)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-073483-3

I like looking at the nicely-defined torso of a shirtless man as much as anyone who's into guys would but I don't know whether to cringe or to giggle at the cover of Marianne Stillings' latest contemporary romance Sighs Matter. (Geddit? Size matters?) On one hand, I quite like the fact that the artist has taken the trouble to add in a dusking of dark hair between the man's shiny and probably metallic Pecs of Titanium and a treasure trail from his Plug Your Modem In Here belly button but on the other hand, that cover is straight out of a print ad for steroids.

The cover is very mismatched with the story, if you ask me, because when I am reading Sighs Matter, I feel like I'm reading a young adult novel that is filled with characters who pout, stomp their feet, flounce, and talk like they are straight out of a less wholesome Archie comic strip. Dr Claire Hunter and Detective Taylor McKennitt remind me of bickering teenagers on Spring Break unable to decide whether to have sex or to argue. Maybe a big bag of pot would have made their lives so much happier.

These two characters have a history of sorts when they have a drunken shag at his brother Soldier's wedding eight months ago. Claire however has an aversion to dating men in uniform after the death of her brother (also a man in uniform) and her giving him a cold shoulder from that moment gets to him. He also has been burned by a relationship in the past before. They get a dubious chance at happily ever after when Claire, conveniently staying in the middle of nowhere with only her dotty Aunt Sadie and a parrot for company, becomes the target of a series of suspicious "accidents" and "mishaps". Taylor of course comes to the rescue.

The problem with this book is that sometimes, a rare moment here and there in what I am starting to suspect are lucid episodes on the author's part, Ms Stillings is aware of how childish her characters can be and wink at me, so to speak, by having another character snark on these characters' antics. But for a long time, the characters in this book behave like they are more interested in being the center of attention via over-the-top antics or one-liners rather than behaving at least a little naturally given the circumstance. A typical example is when Claire early in the story is run off the road by a mysterious car. When Taylor comes to her rescue in the police station, Claire doesn't act like a terrified woman as much as she is more interested in having an argument with Taylor. The characters in this book may be in danger but they often don't act like they are aware of the gravity of their situation. Instead, they will snap at each other like they are the new Archie and Veronica of the new millennium.

The author also often plunges the story into melodrama at the drop of the hat. The threat on Claire's life is eventually raised to an over-the-top level that would make a soap opera panel writer wish he thinks of the idea first. Meanwhile Soldier and his wife show up to present this sickeningly perfect scenario of a married couple to the point that it is as if marriage automatically turns people into happy Carebears who matchmake everyone else and tell them it's love when they are not making perfect love on every furniture in their house.

The author's flippant treatment of the characters and their situation, as if everything that happens in this story is an excuse for the characters to act like wisecracking smart guys, causes a feeling of disconnect in me because I can't take their situation or the danger they may be in seriously. Too much about this book feels like something Ms Stillings puts in to show off to me how funny and smart she is. "Look at me! Look at me!" she seems to be calling out to me through every precious antic of Aunt Sadie and through every put-down Claire and Taylor give each other, as if Marianne Stillings is a precocious teenaged girl eager to show off her wit and cleverness. Normally I would smile indulgently at such a girl because we all go through that phase, I'm sure, in our lives, but Sighs Matter is supposed to be a story. It's supposed to tell a story.

By constantly having her characters act out of turn or go the extra mile just to be oh-so-adroitly-witty and what not, Ms Stillings ends up inserting too much of herself into the story to the point that the story stops becoming a story and instead morphs into the Marianne Stillings show where she uses her puppets Claire and Taylor to show me what kind of amazing tricks she can do with her hands. The suspence subplot is uneven as the identity of the main villain can be guessed easily even if Ms Stillings tries to throw some red herrings here and there in a pretty interesting manner, but it could have been interesting if the main characters aren't behaving the way they do.

What I'm trying to say is, the characters in this book would have been better off if they display some genuine emotion like fear and worry as appropriate with regards to a situation instead of using every opportunity to be precious. Sighs Matter comes off as a very stilted and self-conscious book too eager to make me laugh, laugh, and laugh some more to the point that sometimes the laugh track that Ms Stillings is figuratively playing in the background practically echoes in my room as I grimace and cringe while I turn the pages in silence.

Rating: 56

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