Strapless, $12.95, ISBN 0-7582-0837-5
Contemporary Fiction, 2005
Nice title. And yes, the title fits the story between the pages perfectly. This is Liz Ireland’s second chick-lit novel for Strapless and while it does a fine job straddling between refreshing and convincing heroine introspection with some of the more familiar conventions of the genre, I advise romance readers who don’t like to read about a heroine who isn’t all sunshine, sweetness, and virtue to proceed with caution where this book is concerned. How I Stole Her Husband – you cannot get a fairer warning than from the title of the book alone.
But this book isn’t all about glorified infidelity or romanticized cuckoldry. In fact, it’s far from that – and therein lies the biggest problem of the book. But I’ll get to that later. First, the story.
Alison Bell is our heroine. She was born in an upper-class wealthy family but when she was a teenager, the money went kaput. Today, Alison is a typical struggling rat-racing college graduate trying to make ends meet in unglamorous, low-paying jobs in Dallas. When she is laid off from her previous job, this ad looking for the services of a nanny is like a dream come true. Never mind that she doesn’t have experiences at being a nanny – just how hard can looking after spoiled kids of rich people be, anyway? – the job offers a chance to relocate to New York City or even London. If she can get out of Dallas, even if this job doesn’t go well, she can always chase after dreams in those glamorous cities!
It is bad enough that Pepper McClintock Smith, the rich woman looking for a nanny, is the typical snobby type who wants her staff to sound French without being French. Or that the daughter August is a monster. But what’s worse is that Pepper is Alison’s high school nemesis and Alison answers the ad of this “Mrs Smith” only to learn too late that the Mrs Smith in question is Pepper. And what is the absolute worst is that Pepper has actually married Spence Smith, Alison’s first love that Pepper stole from her before graduation, and Spence is as attractive as Alison remembers.
A reader can rightfully ask what kind of mad woman would hire her husband’s ex-girlfriend as a full-time, live-in nanny but Ms Ireland has a plausible explanation for her premise in the story. Let’s just say that Pepper may seem like a typical dim-witted trashy foil to Alison but she turns out to be more cunning than everyone believes her to be. Ms Ireland provides plenty of amusing moments where Alison compares herself to a certain Camilla Parker-Bowles. But the biggest problem of the story is this: Spence is obviously no angel. He’s not the prince charming. The author telegraphs this fact to the reader very early on and does not even pretend that Spence has any chance of being the right guy for Alison. But in this story, Alison holds on to her delusion that Spence cannot do wrong and Pepper is the evil one that her constant romanticization of Spence soon becomes really out of character for the otherwise lucid and reasonable Alison. Alison is the last person to know and by this, “last to know” as in “by the second last chapter”. I don’t know if there are many readers who can remain this patient with Alison.
What keeps me from blowing up though is that the emotional payoff is worth putting up with the heroine’s agonizing blind spot where Spence is concerned. The heroine’s epiphany crystallizes exactly my exasperation with Alison. She ends up being as exasperated with herself as I am with her. Ms Ireland is definitely aware of her characters’ folly and strengths and she is very upfront about Alison’s foolishness where Spence is concerned. I like it when an author isn’t afraid to show me her characters’ warts. It makes a nice change from the desperation reeking from so many romance authors who keep coming up with uniformly tedious The Most Selfless, Bestest Martyr Who Thinks She Has No Value type of heroines. I also like how Alison’s epiphany leads her to reexamine her relationship with her divorced parents as well as with her stepmother. At the heart of this book’s more conventional chick-lit comedy moments are some realistic and optimistic emotions and relationships.
I also enjoy the fact that none of the characters in this book is black-and-white good or evil. Pepper, bless her colorful drama queen self, actually comes off sympathetic or even likable at times. Spence won’t be the ideal romantic suitor anytime soon (that role falls to an underdeveloped potential love interest for Alison) but he comes off as a misguided, privileged kid who has never really grown up because he doesn’t have to rather than an outright prick. Alison is often clear-headed where everything but Spence is concerned and when she isn’t, she can figure things out when realization strikes her. But she won’t be some Merry Miss Sunshine of Loves and Kisses by the last page, instead she’ll be just a little wiser. Her faults aren’t completely obliterated. Some readers may not like this, I suppose, but I find that all these aspects of Alison only make her a more realistic character that I would enjoy having lunch with in real life. On the other hand, some readers may like the lectures Alison start giving once she realizes that Spence isn’t the prince like she thinks he is, but I find myself rolling up my eyes and wondering who she thinks she is to lecture Pepper or Spence about their responsibilities. She’s not exactly Mary Poppins herself, that Alison.
Even that girl August comes off as a credible little monster kid instead of some contrived attempt at humor or cutesy sentimentalism even if she features prominently as the subject of Alison’s misguided sermonizing to Pepper and Spence.
How I Stole Her Husband doesn’t have the vivid and enjoyable portrayal of life in the Big Apple like Three Bedrooms in Chelsea and it is also not as humorous. But it does pack a substantial emotional punch thanks to the author taking the opportunity to go a little deeper than she has to when it comes to characterization. This one can get a little bumpy when it comes to Alison’s blind spot for Spence or her annoying self-righteousness after her epiphany, but it has plenty of heart and substance to offer along with the expected comedy and glitz.