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"Ask any woman who has a sister: Are you the smart one or the pretty one? She'll have an answer." This is the opening sentence of Smart vs. Pretty, a novel of sibling rivalry and so much more.
Some sisters love their sisters. Some don't. Loving or not, the relationship between sisters is undeniably a difficult one. Francesca (Frank) Greenfield knows this all too well. She is the smart one. After years of somewhat fancy Manhattan media jobs, she finds herself in her native Brooklyn, living and working with her younger sister, Amanda, the pretty one, in the house they grew up in. Their job: to run the family café, Barney Greenfield's, after their parents' untimely deaths.
Living with her sister is hardly a blast for Frank. Not only do they not get along very well, but they have nothing in common. "Newly thirty-three, Frank saw her spinsterhood flung out before her like a worn beach blanket. Amanda, twenty-nine, who'd never had a relationship that lasted longer than two months, couldn't understand her sister's preoccupation with the romance of loneliness." Smart vs. Pretty is full of ruminations like this, funny and sad.
Frank, being smart and practical, also has to live with the fact that the sisters are one mortgage payment away from losing their heritage. The Starbucks-like Moonburst a block away is stealing all of their business. Amanda doesn't pay overly much attention to such matters, preferring to trust the I Ching to tell her what to do. "The I Ching was Amanda's secret weapon, her way of testing her instincts or reinforcing her doubts." Frank finds this hopelessly silly.
One day an icy blonde girl named Clarissa wanders into Barney Greenfield's and alters the course of the sisters' lives. She is a student at the Stern School of Business at NYU, majoring in marketing and public relations. Clarissa decides to turn their cafe around as her final school project. Frank can't stand Clarissa and finds herself jealous of the budding friendship between Amanda and Clarissa. Still, she allows Clarissa to come in and reinvent the place -- new furniture, new gimmicks like a Mr. Coffee of the Week contest, and even a new name: Romancing the Bean.
Suddenly the plot of this book takes a turn for the unexpected. These catty sisters find themselves in the middle of a coffee murder scandal that splashes them across the cover of The New York Post with a headline reading: "Coffee King Found Dead -- Pretty Proprietress Prime Suspect." Amanda's picture goes with that headline, of course. Although it is not initially apparent, the scandal turns out to be a good thing. It takes the sisters' minds off of the pettier things in their lives for long enough that they sort through their sister issues (better than they had before) as they work together to solve the murder.
Smart vs. Pretty is a wild, funny read. What begins as a sad but familiar tale of sibling quibbling morphs into a page-turning whodunit mystery. Along the way the girls fall in and out of bed (or at least think about falling in and out of bed) with a few guys, including a J. Crew model. They may even fall a little in and out of love. Most importantly, as their story progresses, they fall a little in love with each other. Frankel has no fear of the happy ending, and she writes this one with a flourish. Everything really does work out in this end.