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REVIEW: Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Dear Ms. Phillips:

Book CoverYour strong contemporary voice is magical, only it isn’t always magical for me. As this book progressed, I wavered between really liking it and thinking it might be a keeper and beign irritated with the protagonists. The lack of full exploration of the real issues underlying motivating the characters brought the book down.

Blue Bailey has hooked up with her share of losers but she’s always been able to extricate herself from a bad situation. One day she finds herself dressed up in a beaver costume to make some dough after she up and moved across the country for her boyfriend. (This gave me pause because it seemed so . . . needy). Dean Robillard, golden boy quarterback for the Chicago Stars, is taking a road trip from Chicago to Tennessee to view a property that he purchased. He runs across Blue, picks her up and after some unbelievable wrangling decides to take her to Tennessee with him. Blue asserts that this will be perfect for him because she can run his errands and protect his car.

When Dean and Blue arrive at his new homestead, Dean finds that the major domo who has been handling the transformation of the property into a new home is his estranged mother. April was a groupie who went from band to band, strung up on drugs and high on the music. She was not a good mother. She recognizes this and cleaned up her act. All attempts at reconciliation were summarily rebuffed by Dean. Dean can’t wait to get April off his property but that plan is thwarted when his half sister turns up followed soon behind by his famous sperminator, Mad Jack Patriot. Jack was a worse parent than April in that he turned his back on being a father at all which he tries to do again with young Riley.

Dean doesn’t know what to think. He hates his parents but feels for Riley. He just doesn’t know how to connect at the risk of his own walls of protection. Blue has her own problems but its always easier to psychoanalyze somebody else which Blue is free to do because it’s Dean and his family and not Blue and hers.

I liked smart mouthed heroines and I understood the character’s motivations. She understood herself well enough to know that falling for Dean Roubillard would be disastrous. She uses everything that she can think of to ward him off, to turn away his natural born charm. Her best weapon is her brain and her mouth.

Yet, for all her knowing, like many romance heroines, she fails to see that her being a challenge is the best way to attract him. Dean knows women and he is pretty sure that Blue is attracted to him, after all he’s rich, famous and gorgeous. That’s enough to make any girl’s heart rate rise. On the other hand, he’s a little disconcerted that she doesn’t fall easily into his hands. As a super competitive person, Dean becomes challenged. Soon everything between Dean and Blue becomes a contest. Who can give the most witty retort. Who can confuse the other the most. Who can be the most frustrating.

The story would have been good just watching Blue and Dean spar, but this more than a love story, its a story about families and their capacity to love, betray, hurt and forgive. It’s about second chances and who deserves them. What you have to do in order to deserve them? Does a mother who spent her time high and floating from one man to another in search of a better hit deserve forgiveness and a chance at a relationship with her son. Does a father who wanted nothing to do with his son except when the son becomes famous deserve the same? The problem that this book has is that because of the mostly lighthearted overtones, the chance to explore the deeper themes of love and betrayal is missed. Those parts are glossed over. They maybe be glossed over because neither Dean nor Riley really want to explore their past, but their methods of coping can’t continue to work if they are to grow as characters.

Where I felt really cheated was that the patterned behavior of abandonment learned by Dean is re-enacted against Blue, Dean doesn’t really come to see the truth of his own actions. In fact, I thought there was a point of great betrayal by Dean to Blue that is simply explained away with a sentence or two. There needed to be groveling. Lots of it and publicly done. The lack of the good grovel after the humiliating event coupled with the superficiality of some themes cast a minor pall over the end pushing the grade of this book down to a B.

Best regards,

Jane


Dear Mrs. Phillips,

Book Cover Long time fans of your Chicago Stars series will have another book that continues the long running franchise. New fans will something to start them out. I’m not sure which group will end up enjoying the book more. I have a feeling it will be the newbies because this reader couldn’t help but compare this book’s plot and characters to a large number of past efforts and feel deja vu all over again.

Dean Robillard’s cross country driving journey finally gets interesting when he picks up Blue Bailey. After all, who can resist knowing the story behind a woman trudging down the side of the road in a beaver suit? Dean’s no dummy and quickly figures out why Blue wants to stick with him while he drives to the farm he’s purchased outside Nashville, TN. Her vagabond upbringing has made Blue into a fiercely independent person but after her peace activist mother empties out Blue’s financial nest egg, she needs a little boost to get back on her feet. She figures if she can hitch a ride with Dean, she can get to a city large enough to allow her to set up her portrait painting business again.

Things really heat up when they arrive at the farm to discover that the woman Dean’s agent hired to oversee the renovations to the farm house is actually Dean’s long estranged mother, former rock groupie and drug addict, April Robillard. After a cool greeting, Dean orders her to leave but April hangs on, hoping to finish the renovations thereby doing one thing for this son she abandoned during his childhood. Dean’s wish for solitude is further interrupted when his young half-sister arrives seeking the love she never got from her recently deceased mother. Their mutual (rock star) father shows up soon after and the five of them spend a summer working on the house, their relationships and the future of the small town slowly dying from a bitter woman’s neglect.

Natural Born Charmer is vintage SEP. We have the main characters who have strained relationships with their parents, the wounded mother character, the estranged parents, the flat chested, tiny heroine…really, I’ve read them all before. Can you write a book about a full chested heroine besides Phoebe Calebow? Or main characters who actually get along with their parents? I keep picking out character’s flaws, problems, whatever from previous books in these current ones.

And I’m so tired of authors trying to make a character edgy then having to pull back and blunt whatever they were using to try to achieve this. Dean’s mother is supposed to have ignored him throughout his childhood while she traveled with rock bands as a groupie. Then when we finally get her POV, she’s all torn up about how she ignored him for his own good because she knew that lifestyle would corrupt him if she was around him. So we go from the hero’s POV of her as a horrible person to you then trying to make her a sympathetic character. Why couldn’t she have been a drugged out groupie who didn’t think much about her son then but now that she’s dried out, she could want a relationship and be sorry for what she’d done? And if she was so drugged out, would she have even realized that she was ignoring him? Ditto the bitter woman who “owns” the tiny town of Garrison. Nita is described as mean, shown as mean then you negate it all by having Blue discover all the secret, nice things she’s done for various down and out town citizens.

On the positive side, the description of Garrison is dead on. I drive through a town like this often. The only difference is the circle drive around the county courthouse at the end of the “main” street. I also noticed that while clothes/cars/whatever are still being described, brand names aren’t being dropped left, right and center as was the case in “Match Me.” Thank you. The plot is more far out than “Match Me” and some of the earlier Stars books were. Maybe on par with DALD or NBBM. The initial sparring between Dean and Blue is wonderful and to some extent it continues throughout the book. But later, instead of being something to bring the characters together, it seems to push them apart a little.

I liked the character of Riley, who seems like an 11 year old girl abandoned to grow up alone but as with the other characters, the resolution to her story felt too easy. It’s the whole ending that dragged down the grade and felt like a “fucking hug” as Jack calls it. Problems that had grown and festered for years get cleared up in 2 months. Everybody gets along, everybody falls in love, everyone gets forgiven for any horrible thing ever done, everybody looses their baby fat, proves they can sing, gets signed by the best art dealer in the South (for paintings of gypsy caravans and fairies?!?), etc….the high sugar content almost sent me into a diabetic coma. The only relationship which isn’t worked out with Care Bear happiness is between Blue and her mother but even then Blue eventually releases all her pent up anger just by looking at a photograph and seeing what her mother did with the stolen money.

Your books used to work for me. Every time. Now….I’m not so sure. I would have hated to pay hardback prices for this. Maybe when I read this I was just in a cynical mood but I really can’t grade it higher than a C+.

~Jayne

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

16 Comments

  1. AAR Rachel
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 08:18:11

    I’ve really been looking forward to this book (and I have so few on my MUST READ list that the ones there seem vital), so I’m glad you liked it, Jane.

    ReplyReply

  2. Eva Gale
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 08:41:07

    *puts fingers in ears* lalalalalaaaaa

    Just got done with Match Me. I’m high on SEP brilliance. Gotta ride the wave.

    ReplyReply

  3. Jane
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 10:25:11

    I did like it, obviously more than Jayne. One thing I thought was ironic was that Jayne said that there weren’t as many irritating name droppings in this book, but I thought that there were. There were Dolce & Gabanna, BMW, Astin Marton. A bandage was not a bandage, it was an ACE bandage. They didn’t eat cereal, they ate Honey Nut Cheerios. You get the picture. I felt it was like a movie with brand name placements all over the place.

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  4. Jayne
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 11:08:03

    Yeah they did have some name dropping but not each and every piece of clothing, furniture, etc for each and every character in each and every scene the way it was done in Match Me.

    ReplyReply

  5. Eva Gale
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 11:17:35

    We were having a discuss about that on Romace Divas the other day. I believe it started with a reference to Elaine dancing (Seinfeld). If product name dropping is annoying, what about pop culture references? Do you think it’s different when a writer makes an obscure reference to … Kate Chopin? Shakespeare?

    Sometimes I think authors drop product names like that because it puts us squarely into the characters life. Saying he ate cereal is not as evocative as bringing up the readers immeadiate smell/sight memories of Honey Nut Cheerios. It’s a common point of reference. Granted, I think high $ names like Dolce can be offputting too, but maybe she was trying to set characterizations?

    The thing I love about SEP is to me, it’s as if there characters were alive. As if she just got off the phone with them. Sometimes their motivations fall flat, but they’re realistically quirky.

    Falling into rabid fangirl mode. Stopping now. :)

    ReplyReply

  6. Jane
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 11:20:02

    No, Eva Gale, you make a good point. I think we give points (maybe inapporpriately) to more obscure references because it seems smart (and probably is). The endless name dropping, though, does seem a bit lazy. Shouldn’t the author be able to evoke the sense of feeling with descriptive words instead of brand name articles. What if you don’t like honey nut cheerios?

    As for SEP’s characterizations, i completely agree with you. She does make them come alive.

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  7. Janine
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 11:36:29

    [quote comment="22824"]No, Eva Gale, you make a good point. I think we give points (maybe inapporpriately) to more obscure references because it seems smart (and probably is). The endless name dropping, though, does seem a bit lazy. Shouldn’t the author be able to evoke the sense of feeling with descriptive words instead of brand name articles. What if you don’t like honey nut cheerios?[/quote]

    For me the difference between a reference to classic literature and a reference to a television show or a product name is that the latter dates the book and the former doesn’t. Thirty years from now Shakespeare will still be relevant, but will Dolce & Gabanna be equally timeless?

    Having said that, I don’t always mind product names or television show references. Like anything else it can get excessive, but in moderation it doesn’t necessarily bother me.

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  8. LeeLee
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 13:03:47

    Heroine convinces hero to drive her across the country because she can run his errands, etc. Heaven, Texas
    Hero owns semi-remote property populated by eccentric cast of characters, including an artist. Nobody’s Baby But Mine
    While I’m looking forward to reading this book, SEP is stepping back to older books for some plot material.

    ReplyReply

  9. Jane
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 13:05:26

    Did any of you read Faking It? because the heroine reminded me alot of the heroine in Faking It.

    ReplyReply

  10. Eva Gale
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 16:43:41

    Hmm, she might have done better saying extruded circular toasted oat cereal…hee.

    ReplyReply

  11. Lars
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 23:45:14

    i was just wondering if this will be coming out in ebook? does anyone know? thank you!

    ReplyReply

  12. Jane
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 23:47:18

    It looks like it will be an ebook for $19.95.

    ReplyReply

  13. Shiloh Walker
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 23:55:26

    an ebook… selling for 19.95????

    ouch.

    ReplyReply

  14. Sharon Beatty
    Feb 13, 2007 @ 17:40:27

    sep, Natural Born Charmer is w/o a doubt your best ever! I didn’t know how you could get any better but this one beats them all. I was half way thru before I realized it and deliberately slowed down so it would last longer. I have all of your books so will just have to start over on them until you come out with another one. What a wonderful writer you are. Do you know who your next protagonist will be or what it will be about? I look forward to anything you write. Wishing you as good a day as I had reading Natural Born Charmer. Sharon

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  15. Lynne Connolly
    Jul 17, 2007 @ 16:06:28

    I loved most of this book, and yes, I’ve only just read it. I was saving it for a rainy day, and boy, was it rainy today!
    The bit I didn’t like so much was the end. Too happy, too resolved. I wanted the secondary story to be a bit more problematic and the overweight child to become happy with her weight, or at least reconciled to it.
    I would have liked it better if the story had concentrated a bit more on Dean and Blue, or maybe on Jack and April. I think a Jack and April story would have rocked in more ways than one, but maybe with a tougher ending.
    But hey, she doesn’t write very fast and this one will go on my keeper shelf and I’ll be doing a re-read of Heaven, Texas pretty soon. When all’s said and done, she’s a great writer.

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  16. rachel
    Jun 03, 2009 @ 11:41:34

    I personally thought the book was a phenominally written piece. I really like how you had a good understanding of every characters life. The ”wanting to know what happens to them next” aspect kept me turning pages. The sex scenes were a bit graphic for me (i’m 13) but I really liked the storyline. I will definitely be looking for more of her books!

    ReplyReply

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