Wednesday, October 07, 2009

"Natural Born Charmer," by Susan Elizabeth Phillips


Alternate Title: Sex, Beavers and Rock and Roll

The Chick: Blue Bailey. Her nomadic childhood gave her the ability to adapt to changing situations, but when she's hit with the one-two punch of her lover cheating on her and her free radical mother emptying out her bank accounts, even she has trouble landing on her feet. Good thing sexy football star Dean Robillard is there to give her a lift.
The Rub: Dean is obviously attracted to her, but she has too much pride to become one of his conquests. Besides - she knows a shiftless ragamuffin like her has no place in Dean's multimillion-dollar world.
Dream Casting: Kristin Bell, with hair dyed black.

The Dude: Dean Robillard. A world-famous football star, when he first picks up Blue on the freeway, he's intrigued by her refusal to jump into his lap and thinks he's in for a delicious challenge. Nothing long term, though.
The Rub: When both of his shamefully neglectful parents show up at his Tennessee farmhouse, Dean desperately needs a buffer, any buffer, to keep him as far away from his hated progenitors as possible. Even a feisty sprite in faded hand-me-down clothes will do.
Dream Casting: Ryan Phillipe.

The Plot:

Dean: Hey, baby.

Blue: Don't make me walk this entire freeway by myself.

Dean: Fine with me!

At Dean's New Farm House...

Dean's Mom, April: Oh, hi son!

Dean: Mom? GET OUT.

Blue: Don't throw your mother out of your house.

Dean: Fine.

Riley, Dean's Baby Sister: We're related!

Dean: SEND HER BACK.

Blue: Don't send your sister away.

Dean: Fine.

Dean's Dad, Jack: Hello, Dean.

Dean: GET OUT, THE SEQUEL: GET OUTER

Blue: Don't throw your father out of your house!

Dean: FINE...

Blue: Gah! I don't care if we have matching psychological baggage! I must run away to hide my girly broken heart so you'll still think I'm tough and feisty!

Dean: Don't be a moron!

Blue: Wow. Persuasive.

Dean: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Tough-as-Nails Down-on-Her-Luck Heroine

1 Playboy Athlete Hero

2 Sets of Mommy Issues

1 Set of Daddy Issues

3 Very Bad Parents

2 Reformed Very Bad Parents

1 Accidental Case of, er, Launching Your Rocket Before Being Cleared for Lift Off (ifyaknowwhattamean)

1 Bout of Old People Sex

1 Secret Rockstar Relation

1 Secret Precocious Sister

1 Secondary Romance (between Reformed Very Bad Parents)

1 Pregnancy Scare

1 Small Town

1 Nasty-Ass Bitch Queen of Small Town Who Secretly Hides a Heart of Gold

The Word: I was beginning to think I was boring you, dear readers. You may have noticed that of all my reviews, the category with the most titles in it is the old, reliable B+ category. That's where I place books that are enjoyable and definitely keepers, but don't completely sweep me away. Recently, though, I've been able to spice things up with a D- (The Last Heiress), a C+ (Blue Dahlia) and a regular B (Your Wicked Ways).

And now, I can offer another delightful A+ review.

The introduction sounds like the beginning of a joke: a famous football player encounters a woman in a beaver suit on the side of the road. The beaver in question is Blue Bailey, a gal on a doozy of a losing streak: she dumped her life in Seattle to help a former lover who turned out to be a scumbag. On top of that, her world-saving social crusader of a mother emptied Blue's bank accounts to ransom kidnapped children in South America. And on top of that, her temporary job as mascot for a lumber yard is most likely kaput since she lost the head of her beaver costume.

Broke, jobless, and homeless, she really doesn't have a choice when Dean Robillard offers her a ride. Even though he initially gives a fake name and they both joke around with Blue's initial assumption that he's gay, it becomes pretty clear that Dean finds Blue sexy and doesn't care who knows it. However, Blue's not biting. She doesn't need the complication of a playboy like Dean, sexy or no, and she refuses to be beholden to anyone. All she needs is a ride to a place where she can get another job and enough money to start over as a portrait artist.

Dean takes her as far as Garrison, Tennessee, where he's recently bought a farmhouse. There, he gets a nasty shock when he discovers the new housekeeper he's only traded e-mails with is actually his mother, April. Dean's got issues of his own - particularly with his raging drug-addict mum who abandoned him to chase booze and rock stars. It doesn't matter to him that his mother's been clean (and successful) for ten years. However, Blue takes pity on April (who's clearly been fixing up Dean's house as a redemptive act) and blurts out a lie about April's ill health to keep Dean from kicking her out.

Yeah, it's a little manipulative but Dean figures out the truth pretty quickly. Before he can take action, however, things begin to snowball: the 11-year-old half-sister he's never met appears on his doorstep, Blue ticks off the small town's unofficial Queen Bee, and Dean's biological father (legendary rock star Jack Patriot) shows up to deal with his wayward daughter. It's all a bit much for poor Dean to take, so he comes up with ways to keep Blue near him to provide a buffer against the madness.

I loved this book from beginning to end. The setting, the humour, the dialogue, the pacing, the characters - wow, the characters. What I loved most about Natural Born Charmer is that the book has no villain, even though the plot gives plenty of opportunities to have one. Just when you think one of the characters is meant to be a hateful obstacle to the protagonists' happiness, Susan Elizabeth Phillips develops them and gives them, like, depth and stuff. Whoda thunk?

I read this novel gripped with entertaining frustration because there's a childish part of me that occasionally wants a character to hate on but none of these characters give me a chance. Just when I thought I was meant to hate April the Junkie, I discover she's been secretly renovating Dean's house to make up for the childhood comforts she couldn't give him. Once I start to think that Dean's absentee dad (and April's Life Ruiner) Jack Patriot is going to be the novel's faceless villain, he not only shows up and redeems himself, but starts another romance with Dean's mum! Then we're introduced to the Town Bitch who rules the town with an Iron Fist and she's so appalling and hateful and vicious and I think, "Oh, we are SO in for a scene where She Gets Her Comeuppance in a Hilarious Way That Probably Involves The Loss of Her Cheap Ass Wig and Some Public Humiliation" .... but then Blue gets under her skin and discovers an actual reason for why she's shut herself off from the town and has stewed in spite.

I liked this especially when I compared it to Match Me If You Can, where the heroine's family treats her like shit for 90% of the novel only to make a surprising about-face at the end. I could tell Susan Elizabeth Phillips was trying to do the same thing with Annabelle's family that she does here with Dean's, but she never gave the family members enough detail or depth to truly explain why they suddenly go from horrid-to-loving.

That's not to say all the characters are happy bunnies. Susan Elizabeth Phillips skillfully manages to make her characters sympathetic without whitewashing their mistakes. While it's tempting to pity April and the asshat treatment she initially gets from Dean, the novel never loses sight of the fact that she spent Dean's childhood as a star-struck junkie who dumped her kid at every opportunity to bang some rock star on tour. Same goes for rocker legend Jack Patriot - who had his lawyer do the majority of his parenting with support checks. Dean had a legitimately awful childhood thanks to his parents and it takes more than a hug and a newly renovated kitchen to erase his resentment.

This conflict also makes Dean a more rounded character. His hatred of his parents is definitely an issue he needs to overcome, but neither is it an unrealistic or exaggerated character flaw. Even as he pigheadedly refuses to accept his parents' redemption, I understood his reasoning.

An interesting aspect in Natural Born Charmer is that Blue and Dean have matching baggage. Usually romances tend to go for the Opposites Attract strategy and have one character be too cold and distant while the other is over-emotional, but here, both Blue and Dean have the same problem: neither knew their fathers growing up and both were abandoned by their mothers who felt they had better things to do than raise kids, and as a result, both are distrustful of opening themselves up to other people who'll only end up leaving them like all the rest.

Blue doesn't even have the luxury of being able to easily hate her mother. While Dean's mother wasted his childhood snorting coke and having sex with drummers, Blue's mum spent it feeding orphans in Venezuela, protesting the construction of nuclear reactors and bringing medicine to the victims of tsunamis -- leaving her daughter in the care of various distant friends and relations. Blue could never wish for her mother's attention without feeling guilty about the Starving Kids in Africa. How is one little girl supposed to compete with that? I really enjoyed reading Blue struggle with this aspect of her character.

However, both protagonists hide their vulnerabilities in intriguing and different ways. Dean hypes himself up, lives larger then life, with designer shades and expensive clothes and fancy cars, essentially hiding behind his fame. Blue, on the other hand, dresses herself in grungy old clothes and eschews makeup. While she initially insists it's just because "she doesn't care about clothes," it becomes apparent later on that it's all a show to deflect attention away from herself. She thinks dressing like the cute, petite woman she is will only encourage people to take advantage of her. She dresses like a hobo and never settles in one place because she believes it's better to keep people at a distance than risk growing roots that will inevitably be pulled up.

I adored Blue. I've read a lot of tough-girl heroines, but have encountered relatively few tough-girl heroines who only act tough to hide the girly, romantic, and imagative people they really are for fear that people will think they're weak. It's gripping to read how panicked she is at the idea of being stuck in Garrison and how her frantic wish to leave is slowly undermined by a growing desire to stay, even if she's risking heartbreak. We also grow to know her through her art - she's a painter, but she restricts herself to portraits of people and dogs because she doesn't want to reveal too much of herself to strangers by painting what she really wants. It's equally engrossing to read Dean's fear of falling for Blue because he recognizes her emotional skittishness and hesitates to acknowledge or reveal his feelings for fear of scaring her away.

It's all a delicious, subtle, moving tightrope act as two people, each scared to make the first move, circle around each other to hide the fact they're taking baby steps closer each time. And I loved every word of it. After Match Me If You Can, I went out and bought a bunch of used and new editions of Susan Elizabeth Phillips' novels and now I'm even gladder for doing so. I really liked Match Me If You Can, but Natural Born Charmer blows it out of the water in nearly every way.
A+

7 comments:

  1. Great review! This is my favorite SEP that I've read so far. (I've been working my way thru her backlist this year.)

    Blue is one of my favorite heroines, especially because she feel so different from the usual "spunky tough-girl" heroine.

    Also, the dialogue, esp between Blue and Dean, is some of the best around.

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  2. I squeed over SEP at RWA, I just adore her books! Natural Born Charmer is my second favorite after Match Me If You Can, Annabelle and Heath just really did it for me. With the secondary plot of a potential villainess who turns out good with a HEA of her own too.

    Anyhow I also loved Blue and Dean's story, but remember hating the pregnancy scare part.

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  3. I listened to the audio book of Natural Born Charmer and did a lot of laughing while driving. SEP's dialogue is amazing. Definitely one of my favorites of hers.

    Great review!

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  4. Renee - I totally agree about dialogue. Sizzling conversations are a great way to show things about characters without coming straight out and telling them. I loved the way Dean and Blue sparred - especially at the beginning.

    Lustyreader --> I liked Match Me If You Can, but I wasn't a fan with how SEP characterized Annabelle's family. I think the potential villainess there was a fascinating character, although I do think her relationship with Bodie was inconsistent.

    I wasn't sure what to think about the pregnancy scare, but when they revealed later what Dean was thinking about while they waited for the stick to change colour was a dramatic father-and-son scene.

    Leslie --> Oddly enough, I found out about SEP when I received an audiobook of Match Me If You Can from the Smart Bitches. I have ADD issues so I couldn't listen to the whole thing but it interested me enough to go out and get the book!

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  5. I love SEP! I have to play catch up with this series, though. I need to read This Heart of Mine and Match Me if you Can before I start this one.

    Your romance convention checklist cracks me up. My personal favorite is "launching your rocket". Too funny!

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  6. Great review!! I read this when it was new and it may require a re-read :)

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  7. What an excellent review! I have been looking for a really great, fun, comfort read audio book, and I think I'm going to go for this one.

    It was funny to read your shortie synopsis, and then your long one. Suddenly it all made sense.

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