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REVIEW: Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

HAMW - Goodreads image

Dear Ms. Phillips,

I tried, I really did, but I just couldn’t get into this book at all. It seems to have been meant as a modern take on Gothic romances, but for me it didn’t work as either a Gothic or a romance.

Annie Hewitt once dreamed of becoming an actress, but ended up becoming a ventriloquist and specializing in educational puppet shows. As the book opens, she is travelling with the puppets in tow to her late mother’s cottage on sparsely populated Peregrine Island, off the coast of Maine. Annie’s mother Mariah recently passed away and left Annie an unspecified legacy at the cottage. Mariah had been heavily involved in the New York art scene during her life and would often host artists at the cottage, so Annie suspects that there could be something very valuable involved, but she’s not sure what. By the terms of Mariah’s divorce settlement, she or her heirs must spend sixty consecutive days at the cottage each year or it will revert back to her ex-husband and his family. Annie is broke and has few job prospects, so she decides to spend a couple of months at the cottage and sort things out.

While travelling by night to the remote location, Annie runs her car off the road while trying to avoid a rider on a black horse. She hikes out to the cottage in the bitter cold only to find it dark and unheated, and collapses there for the night. The next morning, she heads up to Harp House to track down the caretaker who should have had the cottage ready for her, but instead runs into Theo Harp, her former step-brother with whom she had a brief relationship when they were young. Annie is convinced that Theo is a psychopath who tried to kill her when they were both teenagers by drawing her to a cave that gets flooded during high tide. The way his behavior as an adolescent is described suggests that she may very well be correct in her diagnosis. Theo, now a bestselling author of horror novels, has issues and wants Annie to go away. That’s the extent of his characterization for quite some time.

So we have a heroine looking for a mysterious artistic legacy, a widowed novelist hero with a difficult past, and some bad history between the two of them. If this sounds familiar, that’s probably because you used a very similar setup in Ain’t She Sweet, only this time the hero gets both the villainous teenager role and the brooding author one. Annie is no Sugar Beth Carey, though, and while it’s not badly written, the story is far less engaging.

Rather than coming across as quirky and irreverent, which was probably your intention, Annie was simply annoying. She regularly imagines conversations between her puppets (each of whom has its own personality and plenty to say) as an ongoing commentary about her life and behavior. For example:

-You mustn’t keep complaining, Crumpet, Dilly admonished her peevish counterpart. Peregrine Island is a popular summer resort.
-It’s not summer! Crumpet countered. It’s the first week of February, we just drove off a car ferry that made me seasick, and there can’t be more than fifty people left here. Fifty stupid people!
-You know Annie had no choice but to come here, Dilly said.
-Because she’s a big failure, an unpleasant male voice sneered.
-Leo had a bad habit of uttering Annie’s deepest fears, and it was inevitable that he’d intrude into her thoughts. He was her least favorite puppet, but every story needed a villain.
-Very unkind, Leo, Dilly said. Even if it is true.

The puppets are right; Annie’s decision-making really isn’t the best. She decides to come to Peregrine Island in the winter, practically unannounced, having only communicated with the caretaker by email and without waiting for his confirmation that the cottage is ready for her. She believes that Theo is dangerous, but spends her time snapping at him and occasionally trying to persuade him that his house is being haunted. That’s not cute, it’s stupid and childish.

It doesn’t help that the entire beginning, and a large part of the story afterward, is told from Annie’s point of view. As a result, there’s little insight into Theo, his thoughts and his motives, and while “dark, dangerous and brooding” may be classic Gothic material, it wasn’t enough here. There’s more from his perspective later on, but it was too late. It’s not that I can’t enjoy heroine-centric romances – Call Me Irresistible, for instance - but I need to like the heroine better, and for the hero not to be portrayed in such a disturbing way for so long.

As for the plot: someone is clearly trying to drive Annie out of the cottage for unknown reasons – island residents keep telling her that it’s not safe for her to be alone, the cottage is broken into, her grocery order is cancelled (a real problem, since deliveries are made from the mainland only once a week), someone shoots at her, and one of her puppets is left hanging from a noose. That’s actually pretty creepy. Annie first suspects Theo, but the two grow closer as it becomes clear that he wants to help rather than hurt her.

There’s a subplot involving Theo’s housekeeper Jaycie, who saved Annie from the drowning attempt, and her young daughter Livia, who won’t speak. Annie tries to draw Livia out, which involves engaging her with the puppets. I could have dealt with the puppets occasionally, but there were too many of them and their ongoing commentary was a distraction. I guess puppets aren’t my thing unless they’re vampire puppets.

Annie and Theo end up having sex, which seemed kind of out of the blue. I’ll give credit for not making it particularly good for either of them, and for having Annie understandably freak out afterward because they forgot to use protection. I managed to get through a few more chapters after that, then mostly skimmed the rest of the book to get to the ending.

The mystery of who’s tormenting Annie is ultimately resolved; not surprisingly, it also turns out that Theo is true hero material. I found some of the disclosures relating to his past disturbing:

Spoiler: Show

First, Theo tells Annie that his wife had mental health issues, became obsessed that he was cheating, and eventually committed suicide. Later, it also turns out that Theo’s twin sister Regan suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness and couldn’t bear for her brother to become involved with anyone. She would make life miserable for anyone she suspected as being a potential romantic interest of Theo’s and sometimes physically harm them. Theo covered for her because he didn’t want her institutionalized and tried to stay away from anyone he was interested in. Regan was the one who tried to kill Annie, while Theo had only been trying to protect her and to keep Regan under control. Regan ended up committing suicide in her early twenties by going out to sea during a squall, soon after finding Theo with his college girlfriend. Theo believes that Regan was trying to set him free rather than to punish him.
I’ll grant that I may have missed some of the subtleties, but I was uncomfortable with the characterization of both women.

I know from past experience that your books can be very hit or miss for me, but I keep reading because the good ones are wonderful. Unfortunately, Heroes Are My Weakness joins the list of misses. D.

Best regards,
Rose

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Rose

Rose is a graduate student and will some day find a way to work her romance reading into her research. Until then, she can often be found online discussing romance novels or sports –occasionally both at the same time. She has no TBR pile and is forever looking to change this unfortunate fact; recommendations for historicals, romantic suspense and contemporaries (preferably of the non-small town variety) are welcome.

25 Comments

  1. Diana
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 09:43:15

    Great review. :) I would not be able to read this, though, as I often just /cannot/ with SEP’s “quirky” heroines, silly plots and too many characters thrown in that take away from the main narrative.

    And I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I’ve always thought SEP introduces sometimes very dark and heavy themes — only to abandon or gloss over their significance. That seems like it’s the case here with the hero’s WTF-how-are-you-not-deeply-traumatized background.

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  2. Heather Greye
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 09:55:05

    I’ve been enjoying the resurgence of gothic romances — like the eHarlequin shivers line — but honestly, I’m not sure I could get past the puppets. Outside of Jeff Dunham, they kinda freak me out.

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  3. cleo
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 09:55:43

    Great review. SEP is hit or miss for me too. The last several have been misses, actually. At least it sounds like this one has new characters, instead of being linked to previous books.

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  4. Rose
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 10:07:44

    To me it seems like Phillips should be writing women’s fiction, or following Lisa Kleypas’s lead and using first person narration. Her more recent books have pretty limited POV for the heroes anyway, so it’s not like it would be a huge change. Like Diana, I feel that the narrative in some of her books is too unfocused and doesn’t always leave enough space to explore the issues that she tries to tackle.

    @cleo: Yes, as far as I can tell it does have an entirely new cast of characters. Unfortunately, many of them are puppets ;)

    I think that when authors write characters with unusual professions, there’s an expectation that this will feature in the novel – I’d have been disappointed if Annie’s work was just window dressing. But it went too far in the other direction in this case.

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  5. MrsJoseph
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 10:15:08

    @Diana:

    And I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I’ve always thought SEP introduces sometimes very dark and heavy themes — only to abandon or gloss over their significance. That seems like it’s the case here with the hero’s WTF-how-are-you-not-deeply-traumatized background.

    It’s not just you. I have had issues with the SEP themes in the past for this exact reason. I hate that and I think I’ll pass on her from now on.

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  6. cleo
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 10:37:49

    @Rose: “Unfortunately, many of them are puppets” – that made me laugh out loud.

    @Diana: I agree about the heavy themes not getting explored properly. My favorite SEPs tend to be her lighter ones because of that.

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  7. Mary
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 11:35:07

    I didn’t think it was a D, a C maybe. The genres were all over the place in this one. Either you go Gothic or you do contemporary romcom, please decide, because trying to do both just doesn’t work.

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  8. Jayne
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 13:00:26

    I thought I had reviewed a newer SEP here. But if I have, I can’t find it which means the last new book of hers I’ve read was prior to 2006. Yikes. I can’t honestly say that her books even tempt me to try them anymore.

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  9. Rose
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 14:40:52

    @Mary: There weren’t enough likable characters for a rom-com, but it could have been a nice Gothic.

    @Jayne: I liked Natural Born Charmer and Call Me Irresistible. Like I wrote, I find SEP very uneven, and I take it that other readers do as well. Sometimes it’s the heavy themes that aren’t handled well, in others it’s the excessive humiliation of heroines or the over-reliance on what’s meant to be quirky characters. Even at her worst, I can usually enjoy at least the dialogue in parts. Here I barely even had that to fall back on.

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  10. cleo
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 15:03:28

    @Jayne – yeah, I feel the same way. She used to be an auto buy and now I’m not even tempted by her new books. I’m not sure if she changed, or my taste changed, or both.

    What I Did for Love (2009) was my last SEP (wow, I can’t believe it’s been 5 years). And that I got from the library. I think my author break up with her is complete.

    @Rose – I know a lot of people liked Natural Born Charmer and I really wanted to like it. I think I would have liked it better if I hadn’t read every single one of her previous books first – she recycled so many plot points that I felt like I was playing “where did I read this before?”

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  11. Tanya
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 15:05:11

    Thanks for such a detailed review, Rose. I put this on reserve at the library, but I am not willing to fork over any money (even in a second-hand store, where I got her last two books) for the SEP experience. There’s something about her books that I devour quickly, but like eating an entire box of chocolates, I feel very sick afterward. The constant humiliation of the heroines has gotten so very tiresome, and yet, I think I enjoy the secondary characters so much I keep skipping ahead to their parts, wishing the book was theirs instead. I think she’s completely tone deaf in terms of what makes an appealing hero/heroine, else why relegate the appealing couples to the background? I read the opening chapter of this one and my tolerance of puppets is at a bare minimum. Also, the heroine was described as being so thin as to be emaciated. Check, please.

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  12. MrsJoseph
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 15:25:34

    I did not like Natural Born Charmer. At all. But I loved the quirky secondary character, Nina. LOVED Nina. But I guess that shows that SEPs secondary characters rule.

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  13. Make Kay
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 15:47:09

    I’ve gotten 15% of the way into this, and I think I’m going to DNF it. It’s just too weird. The puppets are creepy and way too intrusive, and they’re used far too much. And the “heroine” is not appealing. She’s just crazy and neurotic, which is not attractive.

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  14. Jayne
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 15:56:22

    @cleo: Ha! I did read Natural Born Charmer and the reason I couldn’t find my review is that Jane and I did a dual one. I gave that one a C+ and felt exactly as you did Cleo – been there, read that before. That was my latest and probably last SEP.

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  15. cleo
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 17:13:57

    @Jayne: It was my second to last SEP and it was definitely the beginning of the end for me. I just read both of your reviews, and yours reminded me of another thing that annoyed me about NBC – Blue getting a gallery show, with only a couple months notice. Grrr. I’m used to romances getting visual artists wrong but this was my last straw – galleries schedule their exhibits at least a year in advance.

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  16. Ducky
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 17:30:35

    Puppets freak me out. I would rather prefer old characters from previous books to show up instead of puppets.

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  17. Alexandra
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 19:09:23

    Add me to the list of readers who find SEP’s books either a hit or miss. Sometimes ‘hits’ for me are ones that other readers didn’t seem to enjoy as much (What I Did for Love and Call Me Irresistible) but it looks like I’m skipping this one. The premise doesn’t appeal to me at all – and that cover? Yikes.

    I don’t mind an intelligent heroine who’s a little eccentric but SEP’s ‘quirky’ female leads can really get on my nerves – and I usually love heroines who not only have real character flaws but dark ones. I feel like I have a high tolerance for characters other readers find annoying and can forgive almost anything if they are even somewhat ‘redeemed’ but I think I’ll save myself some frustration by reading something else.

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  18. Liz H.
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 20:16:28

    I’ve taken a long break from SEP- the heroine humiliation is a no-go for me- but picked this one up on a whim, and devoured it today. It wasn’t as deep/serious/moving as some of her best books, and it definitely had its flaws, but it was light and engaging and just what I needed. In retrospect I can see plot and character holes, but the writing (prose?) was good and at the time I didn’t notice as many of them. I would give it a C.

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  19. Rose
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 23:21:03

    @cleo: She does tend to recycle plot points between books. For me it was very noticeable here (with Aint’s She Sweet as the original), The Great Escape and Hot Shot, and This Heart of Mine and Nobody’s Baby But Mine. I was telling a friend that all that was needed was for Annie to inherit a football team, then she could have brought back a bunch of characters from the Stars books as well.

    @Make Kay: I came very close to a DNF, but decided that this review would work better if I at least tried to read the whole thing.

    @Tanya: I sometimes enjoy her secondary characters more than the main ones, too. I’m still annoyed that Darnell Pruitt never got his own book, rather than some throwaway scenes in It Had To Be You – not to mention that looking at the heroes, the Stars are the whitest team in the history of football (thought that’s another matter entirely). But the secondary romances are sometimes just as bad if not worse than the main ones (Heaven, Texas and Ain’t She Sweet both had awful ones). Which is why I think that women’s fiction might be a better direction for it – that would allow more space to develop interesting secondary characters without having to write a romance storyline for them.

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  20. Mary
    Aug 28, 2014 @ 08:01:24

    Some of SEP’s books don’t work for me, but sometimes they are exactly what I want to read. Ain’t She Sweet is probably one of my favorite romance novels ever, and I recently reread Glitter Baby and found it waaaay more enjoyable than it was in my memory. And even her more recent books are ones I will reread.
    So I’m going to read this one, but I have a feeling what I’m gonna hate are the puppets. I so do not understand that decision.

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  21. Nistha
    Aug 28, 2014 @ 12:21:13

    Sadly, this SEP was a miss for me too. I love SEP and was so eagerly waiting for this the entire year. I was hoping it would be something along the lines of Dream A Little Dream and have atleast a little angst. Plus there was no secondary romance. And Jaycie’s story line was so incomplete. I never expected such weak characters from SEP. However, we can’t judge an author by just one book. She is still my favorite author and I keep re reading her brilliant past books. Hopefully her next one would be a hit!

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  22. Rose
    Aug 28, 2014 @ 12:37:01

    @Nistha: I agree that a prolific author shouldn’t necessarily be judged based on one book, unless it truly is offensive. But some of the issues other posters and I have with SEP’s books are not limited to this one: heroine humiliation, the reuse of plot points and the emphasis on quirkiness and secondary characters at the expense of other things, for instance.

    Of course, this does not mean that everyone will find her books problematic in this regard – as I mentioned, I’ve certainly enjoyed quite a few of them. I hope that the next one will be more enjoyable for you.

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  23. Sweeney
    Aug 29, 2014 @ 19:42:28

    Match Me If You Can is one of my all time favourites, SEP was an auto buy for me for so long. Not sure what has happened, but everything’s once then has felt contrived.

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  24. Min
    Aug 30, 2014 @ 16:16:17

    The last SEP book I liked was Natural Born Charmer. After that all the books have been underwhelming for me.. What I did for love and the next Ted and Lucy’s books…. I have not enjoyed all 3 of them… And from beginning I wasnt tempted by this new book and I dont think I am going to read it…
    I was very excited for Ted’s and Lucy’s books as I had loved them as secondary characters in older books.. but both were unrecognizable to me in their own books.. I couldnt connect them to their younger selves… and felt their character was totally changed to suit the hero/heroine character that she wanted for call me irresistible and the next (dont remember what was lucy’s book name). I was extremely disappointed that i did not like ted and lucy’s books…..
    her last 3 books before heroes felt like scenes lifted from various older books of hers… She used to be an autobuy for me… even though sometimes i felt the plots and scenes repetitive I still enjoyed her older books…

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  25. Annie
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 20:43:38

    This makes me feel better. I’ve hit the wall exactly where Rose did and this review confirmed my instinct to skip to the end. Besides some of the points mentioned and how predictable the plot is, it also bothers me that so far anyone who strives for any kind of intellectualism or culture is portrayed as a fake: the librarian, the third wife, the heroine’s mother. There were no nuances — the only way a character can be liked is if he or she is similar to the heroine. It makes me think of Charlotte Bronte’s “Villete,” a book that also has its share of snobbery, but there are so many shades to the characters that it kept me reading to the bitter end. It might not be fair to compare SEP to Bronte, but she does pay tribute in this book and it feels more like name-dropping than promoting an understanding.

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