Ivy, $6.99, ISBN 0-345-45841-9
Romantic Suspense, 2004
Jane Graves’s Light My Fire is like a pot of water on perpetual simmer. I get frustrated waiting for the story to reach boiling point. The romantic suspense is actually well thought out with very little inane contrivances one could find in bandwagon romantic suspense novels, but the pacing is such that this aspect of the story lacks urgency. Also, a flaw that I noticed in the author’s previous book Flirting with Disaster is present here in a larger degree: the obvious compartmentalization of suspense from romance. I can practically see the points in the story where the author switches the romance from “on” to “off” or vice-versa.
But first, the story. Ethan Miller is a bad boy DA who doesn’t care about the innocence of the low lives he defends – he just does his best to tear down the prosecution and let his client walk free. But as it sometimes can happen, Ethan isn’t happy so one day he is arrested for DUI and is sentenced to forty hours of community service under the watch of our heroine Sandy DeMarco. While coming from a family of cops who hate Ethan’s guts, Sandy (a florist) nonetheless is ready to have an open mind where Ethan is concerned. When a murder takes place in the quiet community and a teenage former delinquent under Sandy’s watch gets implicated in the murder, Sandy asks Ethan to help her defend the kid Josh. Ethan is already attracted to Sandy even though he tells himself that she is the wrong kind of woman for him, so he’s not going to find it easy to tell her no.
The good things first. The plump heroine is a well-written character, especially in how she isn’t some dingbat who loses her common sense in the presence of a handsome man. Sandy is reasonably intelligent and she has a refreshing normalcy in her views about relationships with men. While she is kind, she is not a doormat. The one aspect of her that I find contrived is her obstinate insistence in trusting people and assuming that everyone is a good person from first go. It is hard to believe that Sandy, who comes from a family of cops, can be so optimistic and even gullible at times to the point of being like a kitten trying to cross a busy highway. This doesn’t make her stupid, as she has an ability to learn from her mistakes and apologizes when she sees how ridiculous she sometimes can be. This Pollyanna aspect of Sandy doesn’t seem to be in character: it comes off more like some blatant attempt on the author’s part to make Sandy a foil to Ethan’s cynicism even if this compromises Sandy’s character.
But while Ethan and Sandy have a great chemistry going between them, the author’s tendency to compartmentalize her romance from suspense means that there are very obvious points in the story where the characters will lust after each other before hitting the brakes and moving into sober investigator territory. The result is the dissipation of momentum where the romance and the suspense is concerned, especially the romance. For long stretches in the middle parts of the story, the two characters barely think about their relationship, and then, wham! The author decides to have these two getting into bed with each other so that I will remember that Sandy and Ethan are supposed to be falling in love. By switching on and off her characters’ attraction to each other, Ms Graves never allows the relationship to develop smoothly and naturally. Instead, the romance comes and goes in sputters like a car trying to make a trip with an engine dangerously close to breaking down completely.
Ethan is also a disappointing character because Ms Graves make a big fuss about how Ethan is such a mean, bad lawyer, only to then have him turn out to be a shockingly reasonable and even noble guy who does the right thing without putting up too much of a fight. The bad boy appeal of Ethan evaporates the moment he tells Sandy that he really doesn’t get drunk often while driving. While Ms Graves’ doesn’t redeem Ethan as much as she justifies Ethan’s lapses on his sad past and his relationship with his father, I find it a bigger cop-out that she doesn’t actually make Ethan be a bad boy like she says he is. Ethan comes off as a pretty nice guy who happens to have a bad day. He is so willing to turn over a new leaf that I find myself thinking, “Er, is that supposed to be a conflict?” All his angsts and baggages, therefore, come off like unrealistic accessories to his character. They aren’t convincing. Ethan being a bad boy is like an eight-year old girl putting on her mother’s lipstick and calling herself a grown-up. No matter how much Ms Graves has Ethan calling himself a bad guy, she’s not fooling me.
My biggest disappointment is for how the relationship between Ethan and Sandy is handled. There has to be a balance between romance and suspense, as I’ve said in my review of her previous book, yes. But doing things in such a manner – developing the romance in Chapters A to C, pushing romance to the background in Chapters D to G, and then bringing back the romance in Chapters H to J, and so on – is not the way. Ms Graves ends up compartmentalizing her book to the point that the romance and the suspense feel disconnected from each other. In doing this, she is forcing me to choose between wanting more romance or more suspense because both aspects end up coming in each other’s way. No matter which one I choose, I still end up wanting more from this book.