From Eloisa James's "READING ROMANCE" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
When it comes to romance
writers, lifetime membership in the Optimists' Club is practically a
prerequisite. More than the writers of any other genre, we must keep the faith: that a thoughtful,
sexy, and loving relationship is
possible, long-term. But that doesn't mean that we're optimistic about
so-called "perfect" matches or, for that matter, "perfect"
people. Perfection is highly overrated when it comes to love, as these five
Susan Elizabeth Phillips's Call Me Irresistible opens with two flawless people on the verge of marriage…until the bride's best friend shows up. Meg is far from perfect: she never graduated from college, and doesn't have a job, a decent car, or a career. But when she says -- skeptically -- of the groom, Ted (a gorgeous millionaire with umpteen degrees), "He sounds like Jesus. Except rich and sexy," the bride realizes that she's not ready to marry a deity. This plot could easily turn dizzy and light, but instead the novel offers a fascinating picture of two people who have made a lot of mistakes. Meg truly has wasted her life, and Ted is so overwhelmed by his own reputation that he can't emotionally connect with anyone: beneath her banter and his aloof demeanor is a deep loneliness. Yet for all their antagonism (Ted blames Meg for his failed wedding), it turns out that they are at their best together. Meg learns to be responsible, and Ted finds his wild side. But Susan Elizabeth Phillips doesn't pull her punches: a man who is unavailable emotionally is not a good lover, no matter how many orgasms are exchanged -- and it takes Ted a long time to reform. In fact, in the last chapters, when it isn't clear whether Ted will be able to win Meg back, I defy you not to be turning the pages as fast as you possibly can read.
In Elizabeth Hoyt's Notorious Pleasures it's the heroine,
rather than the hero, who seems to gaze down from an unapproachable height. Lady
Hero Batten is the daughter of a duke: she's beautiful, tactful, intelligent,
and witty. Even so, she is mortified when her fiancé's brother Griffin mocks
her with the title Lady Perfect. Griffin Remmington, Lord Reading, is Hero's
polar opposite. His reputation is even worse than Meg's in Call Me Irresistible: he has made himself notorious for drinking,
carousing, and general worthlessness. In reality that façade hides an even more
terrible truth about his activities, as Hero discovers. One of the wonderful
things about this novel is that, like Phillips, Hoyt doesn't underestimate the
challenges of falling in love with someone who has made dreadful decisions. But
it's the downfall of Lady Perfect that gives the book its tantalizing,
seductive pleasure: when Hero wonders whether "she could ever resurrect
her perfect façade again," you'll be rooting for Griffin, sins and all. This
is a novel that laughs in the face of anyone who believes that romances can't
or don't depict the dark side of life -- while still standing up for the idea of
real, long-term happiness.
Courtney Milan's Unveiled also contrasts a
high-born heroine and a flawed hero, but here again, the stakes are much higher
than mere reputation. Lady Anna Margaret Dalrymple is in a dreadful position.
Her ancestral home, Parford Manor, now belongs to a vengeful distant cousin
named Ash Turner; discovery of her father's bigamy has resulted in his children's
disinheritance. Margaret promises herself that "she would be noble, even
if she was no longer considered nobility." But perfection comes at a price.
Since her horrible father is dying in the master bedroom, Margaret poses as a
nurse in order to stay with him. And when she falls in love with Ash, Margaret
finds herself torn between her role as a dutiful daughter and sister, and the
man she loves. Only after she realizes that Ash would sacrifice everything to
make her happy does Margaret understand love is the real yardstick by which we
should measure loyalty.
Jill Shalvis's Animal Magnetism pits the perfectly sweet, charming Lilah Young against a weary, battle-worn ex-soldier named Brady Miller. He's spent the last few years in battle zones where "grime and suffering trumped hope and joy," whereas Lilah lives in a Disney-ish small town named Sunshine, where everyone loves her and she loves everyone -- including the baby animals she's surrounded by. In short, she's a princess, and he's a cynic. Her real perfection (from Brady's point-of-view) is that she accepts his wandering nature and offers red-hot sex with no strings attached. But, as he comes to understand, that may sound "perfect. Only it wasn't. Not even close." This is a wildly sexy, sweet story, as Lilah and Brady realize that falling in love with a flawed person can be a passionate affirmation of love's ability to bring people together.
last romance poses a particularly modern conundrum: what if the person you fall
in love with online, your Tweetheart,
isn't really as unblemished as his electronic persona seems to be? Teresa Medeiros's Goodnight, Tweetheart moves between text
and tweets to depict a love story between a struggling novelist, Abby Donovan,
and an English professor on sabbatical, Mark Baynard. Their tweets are
fascinating, as they joke about everything from Project Runway to Velveeta. It's impossible not to fall in love
with someone as witty and sweet as Mark (he signs off as Goodnight Tweetheart), even though Abby does realize that he's
using humor as a defense mechanism. Can someone so glowingly "perfect"
ever live up to his Twitter feed? Of all the novels, this one falls most firmly
into the "no one is perfect" camp. When Mark reveals a shocking truth
about himself, Abby realizes that perfection is deeper than tweets: it's Mark's
smile, the smile that says "I will always love you no matter what you've
done and no matter what you'll ever do."
My latest romance, When Beauty Tamed the Beast, has just been published -- and as you can imagine, my hero is definitely less than perfect. I chose to rewrite this particular fairy tale because I think that a love story between all-too-human persons is far more interesting than that between "golden boys and girls," as Shakespeare had it. In fact, these novels are a splendid antidote to an overdose of sickly sweet Valentine's Day sentiments. Buy your beloved a card that insists he or she is the perfect match for you -- and then remind yourself that love trumps all those flaws the card pretends don't exist.
It goes without saying that each of Phillips's books is The One that fans have been waiting for, but in this case, it's truer than ever. Uniting characters from a number of her past novels, Phillips serves up a funny, steamy, blood pressure-spiking heart-wringer. "Mr. Perfect" Ted Beaudine, genius inventor and adored mayor of tiny Wynette, TX, is paired with "Miz Screw Up" Meg Koranda, honest, proud, outspoken, and reckless. They work their way from loathing through lust to love—despite a pitiless town filled with people who will do anything to keep that from happening. From the minute Meg walks into town and her best friend, Lucy Jorik, walks out on her wedding to Ted, Meg's been a pariah. While all ends well, Meg's path to acceptance is rocky, to say the least—and in the hands of an exceptional writer like Phillips, readers feel every sharp stone. VERDICT Phillips has the ability to drill down into her characters' motivations, while conveying their stories with sensitivity and laugh-out-loud humor. Consistently remarkable, she's done it again; Irresistible is stunning. Phillips (What I Did for Love) lives in the Chicago area.
A spoiled California girl becomes a pariah when she sabotages her best friend's wedding.
The mayor and premier citizen of Wynette, Texas, is about to marry the daughter of the nation's first woman president. Bride-to-be Lucy's pre-wedding jitters are exacerbated when her maid of honor, Meg, daughter of Hollywood A-listers, suggests that if the groom-to-be, Ted Beaudine, seems too perfect to be true, he probably is. When Lucy jilts Ted at the altar, the entire town of Wynette turns against Meg. Since her parents, exasperated with Meg's free-spending ways, have cut her off, she's so broke she can't pay her hotel bill. Hotel owner Birdie is one of a cadre of females who have it in for Meg either because they're allies of Ted's formidable mother Francesca, or because they want Ted for themselves, or both. Birdie forces Meg to work off her bill as an underpaid chambermaid. Stuck in Wynette until she can amass enough money to leave, Meg learns that Ted is not as crushed by Lucy's departure as he appears. In fact, his smoldering glances at Meg may hint at much more than anger. Once her indentured servitude at the hotel ends, Meg crashes at a deserted church and lands a job at the local country club. She caddies for Ted and his golf-star father, who are hoping to woo multi-millionaire plumbing magnate Spence to develop a new "environmentally green" golf course that will boost Wynette's sagging economy. Spence feigns enthusiasm, but his cooperation really depends on whether Meg becomes his mistress. She dodges Spence by telling him she's in love with Ted, which is a lie, until...it's not. Ted demonstrates conclusively that in addition to being impossibly handsome and buff, he's the perfect lover. Too perfect. Phillips' witty dialogue and supple prose are outgunned by an overabundance of characters (the acid-tongued whine-ettes who ostracize Meg are particularly hard to keep straight) and an overly complex plot.
A novel that's ponderous where it should be frothy.