Saturday, February 24, 2007

Natural Born Charmer, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Susan Elizabeth Phillips
ISBN: 0-06-073457-4
Book #07-014

When Dean Robillard, star of the Chicago Stars football team, first encounters Blue Bailey, she is dressed in a beaver costume and intent on killing Monty, her ex-lover. Unfortunately for Blue, her bank account has been wiped clean and kicking Monty's butt just isn't satisfying. Dean, who's on his way to his farm in Tennessee, takes advantage of the diversion Blue presents and allows her to ride along with him since she has nowhere else to go, anyway. Blue pretends not to recognize the famous athlete. Her refusal to swoon over him as other women do both amuses and annoys Dean, but adds humor and snappy dialogue to the already sparkling plot.

Dean's farm is being renovated, but he's been unable to get in touch with his housekeeper. Upon arrival in Tennessee, he discovers why: his estranged mother has been doing the job under a made-up name. Riley, Dean's half sister, shows up in the middle of the night after running away from home, she is soon followed by the father Dean has never acknowledged. To complicate matters, Blue offends the matriarch of Dean's new hometown, and the old woman has Blue arrested and strongarms the workers into boycotting construction on Dean's house.

NATURAL BORN CHARMER is full of SEP's trademark sizzle and snap. Dean and Blue are lovers of the more adventurous sort, and Phillips conveys that without going into too much detail. Blue's constant snarkiness toward elderly Nita is hilarious in a hands over mouth, Oh-no-she-did-NOT! fashion. The adults in the story deal with Riley's painful pre-pubescent angst in ways that are true to their individual characters, and while everything turns out much as epxected, Phillips makes the journey worthwhile.

The biggest problem with NATURAL BORN CHARMER is Dean's behavior during an impromptu visit from his Chicago friends. Dean is incredibly unkind to Blue during that interlude, and the requisite grovel is glossed over far too quickly and perfunctorily to provide the emotional payoff readers have come to expect from Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Further, the Annabelle readers met in MATCH ME IF YOU CAN is not the same Annabelle who shows up in a cameo in NATURAL BORN CHARMER, to the detriment of all concerned. More time to develop the climax of this story and give the characters their due would have resulted in a more emotionally fulfilling novel. As it is, the traces of saccharine at the end of an otherwise wonderful book leave a bittersweet aftertaste of artificiality. NATURAL BORN CHARMER doesn't quite satisfy.

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