Tuesday, September 02, 2008
"Sweet Spot," by Susan Mallery
The Chick: Nicole Keyes, fraternal twin sister to Claire Keyes, heroine of Sweet Talk. Nicole's life's a trainwreck at the moment - her husband Drew cheated on her with Jesse, the baby sister she practically raised since she was six years old. The only thing worse than reliving the painful betrayal is being the butt of her friends' pity. On a whim, she offers Hawk plenty of hot commitment-free sex in return for pretending to be her adoring new boyfriend to deflect the constant "aww, how sad" looks from her friends, family and coworkers.
The Rub: Despite her own near-constant state of family crisis and her conviction that she'll never land a decent man, Nicole's biological clock is madly ticking, and not at all assuaged by her sister Claire's blissful state of pregnant engagement. To make things even worse - Jesse turns out to be pregnant, too: possibly with Drew's kid.
Dream Casting: From the start of Sweet Talk, I'd always pictured Nicole as played by Slither's Elizabeth Banks.
The Dude: Eric "Hawk" Hawkins. A former NFL-player-turned-football-coach, he likes Nicole on sight and aggressively pursues her. When she offers herself to him as his on-call sex kitten in return for his pretend commitment, he thinks he's hit the jackpot...
The Rub: ... as long as he thinks he doesn't actually have to commit. He "doesn't do relationships" after he lost his beloved wife Serena to cancer. A house full of girly knicknacks and hordes of pictures of his dead wife contest to the fact that he's only got room in his life for Serena and Brittany, his teenage daughter.
Dream Casting: Huge, muscular, and hot? It could only be The Shield's Kenny Johnson.
Nicole: I caught my husband cheating with my sister and threw them both out, and now I'm alone. Could life get any worse?
Claire, Nicole's Sister: *happy pregnant sparkle* Oh, how terrible. *sparkle sparkle*
Hawk: Hey, you're hot.
Nicole: Oh, good. Let's have sex and you can pretend to adore me!
Hawk: Works for me!
Jesse, Nicole's Backstabbing Baby Sister: Guess what, I'm pregnant!
Sheila, Precocious Stray Dog: WOOF! (translation: So am I!)
Brittany, Hawk's Teenage Daughter: I'm pregnant, too! Yippee!
Hawk: WHAT?! Nicole, this is all YOUR fault - you're like a preggo magnet!
Brittany: Scratch that, turns out I'm just gassy.
Hawk: Uh, Nicole, we can get back together now.
Nicole: Yeah, well guess what - I'M PREGNANT.
Hawk: SHIT. Uh... I mean ... Let's get married.
Nicole: HELL no.
Hawk: What if I buy you presents, first?
All Condom Companies in the Greater Seattle Area: *bankrupted*
Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Sexy (Ex-) Football Player
1 Single Dad/Widower
1 Scrappy Yet Honourable Foster Child
1 Relationship-Aiding Pet
4(!) Unplanned Pregnancies
1 "Whoops I Peed on the Stick Too Soon" Non-Pregnancy
1 Saintly Late Wife Who Continues to Influence From Beyond the Grave
1 Crazy-Ass Spoiled Cheerleader Bitch Daughter
The Word: In my review of the first book in this trilogy, Sweet Talk, I mentioned how at first it was hard to like Nicole Keyes, sister to famous pianist Claire Keyes, because she seemed like such a vindictive, angry person. While her own novel, Sweet Spot, is definitely not up to snuff, it isn''t because Nicole is the heroine this time. I actually found her to be an incredibly likeable character and found myself relating to her very easily. Sadly, Sweet Spot didn't hit the spot, mainly thanks to some frankly unbelievable and contrived plot developments, wishy-washy characters and one character U-Turn that turned the latter half of this novel into a real slog.
As mentioned in the previous book, Nicole's not having a very good year. In Sweet Talk, she recovered from gallbladder surgery, knee surgery, and the betrayal of catching her husband sampling Jesse's goodies, all the while reconciling with Claire, her other sister who had never had the chance to really connect with her family thanks to her musical career.
Even though Claire and Nicole are on pretty friendly terms now, Nicole's happiness meter remains fairly drained. Even though she realizes in hindsight that her marriage to Drew was a mistake from the start, Nicole believes finding a man who truly cares about her is a lost cause. She's a workaholic who's never developed a social life and is a rut person, so she's convinced she only has more of the same to look forward to.
Than she meets Hawk. When Nicole catches a teen, Raoul, stealing donuts from her bakery, Hawk, the kid's football coach, tries to talk her out of calling the police. Nicole ends up calming down more thanks to Raoul's sincere apology and acceptance of responsibility than because of Hawk's domineering intervention, but Hawk feels an attraction to her anyway, an attraction that Nicole secretly returns but is too frightened to admit.
Hawk, in an admirable twist, is a man who knows what he wants immediately, and thus begins openly and aggressively coming on to Nicole. Nicole initially refuses, although Hawk does manage to rope her into hanging out with him and volunteering for his football team. Eventually, however, as the nasty surprises start piling up in her personal life (finding out about Jesse's pregnancy through their lawyer, Cheating Bastard Drew's unwelcome re-appearance, the smothering pity of her friends and family), Nicole desides it's time for a little "Selfish Me Time." She offers Hawk an audacious deal: Hawk can have her any way he wants, as often as he wants, whenever he wants. In return, he'll play the part of the Doting Boyfriend in order to fend off the draining sympathy of Claire, refute the hurtful comments from Drew, and convince as many people as possible that Nicole Keyes' life is not a Bottomless Pit of Suck.
The first stages of Nicole and Hawk's courtship are funny and sexy. Hawk's honesty about his pursuit of Nicole is refreshing, and his macho alpha-male "act first and ask Nicole's permission later" approach comes across as flattering and necessary instead of offensive and domineering. Nicole is a rut person who's comfortable with familiarity, so it feels realistic that a she'd need a take-charge partner to force her to change her routine and enjoy new things. Mallery's characterization of Nicole is spot-on and relateable. Although she does tend to maintain a negative image of herself, she's fierce enough that she never comes across as a self-pitying dishrag. She's believable and real and I found myself relating to her on a number of levels.
However, as the novel moves towards the second half, several plot elements occur that seem so forced that it moves the story in an equally forced direction. It placed unnatural stress on the characters that skewed the story. Spoilers ahoy: Hawk's teenage daughter Brittany gets pregnant, and abruptly transforms from a bubbly and harmless minor character into a flat-out ridiculous, spoiled princess bitch within the span of a few pages. The set-up seemed hopelessly contrived, because it created character traits and weaknesses out of thin air that were not properly developed and set up in the first half. Hawk is demonstrated to be a perfectly capable parent in the first half, but once Brittany gets pregnant, Brittany drops about ten years in mental age and Hawk suddenly becomes an incompetent father. With proper buildup and clues that Hawk might have been ignoring certain aspects of Brittany's character, Mallery could have pulled this off, but as it was, it seemed too out-of-the-blue for me.
From there, things get more convoluted, until the last thirty pages were a swamp to get through. You can probably picture it in your head - lots of backtracking, indecisiveness, running around, scapegoating, and ice cream binge eating. Hawk's final wooing of Nicole is so cheesy and cheap, that it almost wrecked the goodwill stored up from his forthright courtship at the novel's start. While this novel had a firecracker of a heroine and some excellent initial scenes, the book's action eventually ends up hinging on unbelievable happenstance. C+.