St Martin’s Press, $6.99, ISBN 0-312-99232-7
Contemporary Romance, 2004
Public Displays of Affection is an apt title for Susan Donovan’s latest contemporary romance as some of the major love scenes in this book take place outdoors. Charlotte Tasker and Joe Bellacera first meet when she is on her way to pick up her boyfriend Kurt from the airport. Kurt is going to propose, Charlotte is sure of it, and while she loves Kurt, she has never really felt the earth shake and rattle when she’s with him. When she meets Joe, a tall, dark, and handsome stranger and feels some chemistry between them, it isn’t long before they end up naked and doing it by the roadside, among the grasses. Yes, the earth shakes and rattles. Before The Penthouse Letters comes a-calling, though, Charlotte takes her leave, adamant on making this encounter a solely anonymous one. No names, no phone numbers, no regrets, just two ships passing through a port. Or two cars passing through a highway, in this case.
Fast forward to thirteen years later. Kurt did propose to Charlotte and the marriage was fine – if sexually unexciting for Charlotte – until Kurt’s death eighteen months ago. Charlotte is now a single mom to her two kids while expressing her unfulfilled sexual desires by writing shockingly bad erotic poetry that will put readers off cheese and other dairy products as well as meat for a long time, if these readers aren’t too careful. Thankfully I’m lactose intolerant and I actually find these erotic poetry funny and even real enough to be convincing as the works of an ordinary Jane Next Door – I have seen enough written erotica online that are put up by aspiring writers, which are actually worse than Charlotte’s. The one about cheese is close to being gross though.
Charlotte may get one last chance at feeling the earth move, even if she’s stuck in the suburbs of Minton, Ohio, when Joe moves in next door. Joe, however, is actually in hiding. He’s a DEA agent who has to lay low as a drug kingpin has put a price on his head. All he has to do is to stay alive until the kingpin’s trial begins, where he would then testify on the stand. In the meantime, he’ll stock up on gunpower, fortify the house, and try to fend off the attentions of the horny soccer mom next door. Alas, he has been thinking of her – and searching for her without success too – all these years (the earth moved for him too), so it will take a lot of willpower for him to say no to her.
I really like the unusual and wacky set-up of this story. While this book isn’t as obviously laugh-out-loud funny as the author’s last book and the secondary characters are stock smalltown wacky stereotypes, Ms Donovan has a knack for making the familiar come off as fresh and quirky. The kids are realistic and likable brats and the dotty old people amuse rather than grate; they work because they remain secondary characters instead of transparent plot devices to clutter the story and mask any inadequacies in the plot and characterization. Joe is a familiar action hero type, but his interactions with the cast in this story make him a fun character. He’s familiar, but at the same time, he has a refreshing and enjoyable kind of familiarity around him.
Charlotte is the main reason why I hesitate to give this book a higher grade though. Her sexual yearnings fuel this story at the start, but Charlotte is a schizophrenic character that seems torn between trying to be the some safe and predictable formulaic heroine or a woman that genuinely embraces her sexuality. It is as if Ms Donovan is afraid to offend readers that don’t take too easily to a heroine who is unabashedly sexual, so Charlotte often behaves hot and cold in an irritating manner. She wants sex, and sometimes she isn’t afraid to literally reach out and grab what she wants, but at many other times during the story, she behaves like a stereotypical contemporary romance who acts like popcorns on a hot stove when it comes to sex. Eek, sex! She can’t do it! Eek!
Who is Charlotte? What is she? She gives off so many mixed signals throughout the book that I am confused. At the end of the day, it’s a pity that this book starts out with a heroine who isn’t afraid to embrace her sexual side, only to make concessions to conservative readers out there to the point that Charlotte becomes a stereotypical heroine who allows the hero to take control of her sexual wants and wishes because she’s too “good” or “nice” and suffers from whatever it is that is equivalent to Catholic guilt in romance novels to actually be a heroine with realistic sexual fantasies and wants. In short, Charlotte is in the end all talk but no action, and that ultimately disappoints me more than anything else about this book.