LoveSpell, $6.99, ISBN 0-505-52585-2
Contemporary Romance, 2005
Underneath its antiquated slapstick approach to gender politics and crossdressing physics (I’ll explain later), Trish Jensen’s break from a long silence, Phi Beta Bimbo has two credible romances buried under a plot so absurd that some readers may not want to try to wade through the absurdities to enjoy the romance. I don’t blame them – I frankly kept reading because I was stuck on a long train journey. I’m quite glad I did but at the same time I wondered what the author was thinking. Wait, maybe I think I do: in the foreword, Ms Jensen credits Sandra Hill for giving her the book title and then getting Ms Jensen to come up with a story to fit that title.
Leah Smith is a typical romance heroine that should be exterminated with extreme prejudice (with plenty of agonizing pain in the process). She’s beautiful but she will insist until her dying breath that she’s plain and ugly. Her sex life is a textbook example of neuroticism that makes the term “romance heroine” synonymous with “lobotomized idiots in denial about their need to see a shrink”. Because she has nothing better to do, apparently, than to test whether her recently-completed sociological doctorate thesis is actually valid – err, shouldn’t the research come before the thesis? – she decides to pose as a bimbo-ish feisty woman to see whether these kind of women have a better time at work than the “real” Leah, the prim frigid type. Of course, Leah is beautiful enough to pull off the deception, although that doesn’t mean that she won’t stumble, babble, burst into tears, and generally act like a predictable birdbrained moron who shouldn’t be pulling off deceptive masquerades if she can’t even tell a lie without blinking like a deer staring at the lights of an incoming truck.
She applies for a job at her brother Steve’s company and here, Mark Colson, the ex-FBI agent hero who now dislikes intelligent women because he was dumped by an ex, sees right through Leah’s disguise (the fact she punctures one of her fake breasts and talks to herself like a demented idiot when he is studying her through the security camera may have something to do with his uncanny perception) and decides to date both “Candi” and Leah to find out whether she is a spy bent on industrial espionage. I think I can now understand why Mark is an ex-FBI agent.
In the meantime, Steve spends his working hours posing as “Stephanie” because he runs a cosmetics business and apparently such a business will die if it isn’t run by a woman. He falls for the CEO of a rival company, Kate Bloom. Kate’s company recently released some products that are too similar to some of Steve’s products that are currently in the works, which is why Steve hired Mark in the first place. But when Steve realizes that Mark is going to be dating Leah, his sister, instead of telling Mark not to waste time (time that Steve is paying for) in that direction, he decides to encourage it just to annoy Leah. And yes, despite Steve being described as a hot hunk with broad shoulders, he can still pass himself off as Stephenie without too much trouble.
If by now you are feeling that someone has hammered your skull until your head rings because of the plot description, I suggest that you take a few aspirins before opening the book. Also, the book’s treatment of female stereotypes are as offensive as the stereotypes themselves because both the “librarian” and the “bimbo” in this book come off as particularly bad, chiefly because Leah is the quintessential heroine badly in need of, among many things, a functional brain, a reverse lobotomy, and the ability to see some obvious things in front of her without having the hero hammer her in the head with it. The book is also filled with cringe-inducingly embarrassing slapstick comedy moments, mostly involving Leah crying or screaming or blushing when she trips, accidentally punctures a balloon in her chest, and generally acting out because she is too dim-witted to realize that she is allowing the hero to push her buttons too easily.
Later in the story, I am surprised that both couples’ relationships start to blossom with credible emotions and even dramatic poignancy. The feelings feel credible and, even if these couples aren’t original in terms of characters and relationship dynamics, real. But that takes place too late in the story and by then, the whole absurd premise and the just as absurd treatment of gender politics and crossdressing tendencies make up the land mines that readers must tread around in caution to get there. I’m not talking about how one should not take the book too seriously, in case some one starts accusing me of not “getting” the comedic aspects of the book. There is funny and then there is just a tired, antiquated, formulaic attempt at being funny or using “this book should not be taken seriously” as an excuse for its flaws. Ms Jensen can bring on the good stuff as evidenced by the late emotional bloom in her story but for too long she is just cranking out the tired, outdated, tedious jokes that are often at the expense of the heroine. All I can say is, readers, proceed with caution.