REVIEW: Not That Kind of Girl by Susan Donovan
Dear Ms. Donovan:
It is no secret that I am a fan of your early books, especially Knock Me Off My Feet and Take A Chance on Me. The quirky characters, quirkier animals, semi-farcical situations, and likeable heroines all appeal to me. It is also no secret that I have not been as enchanted with some of your recent books, so when Jane sent Not That Kind of Girl to me for review, I was wary. In the end, though, I found myself thoroughly engaged in Roxie Bloom's quirky, semi-farcical story.
Roxanne Bloom has had terrible luck with men. Her father left the family when Roxy was six, telling her in no uncertain terms that he never wanted to be a husband or father. And no man in her life since gave her the kind of love and acceptance any healthy, rational woman would want and deserve. But her last boyfriend was the clincher: a pompous, high-powered, misogynistic attorney more than twice Roxie's age who liked to entertain his acolytes with tales of her sexual deficiencies. Until, that is, she caught him in public doing just that and put a cigar out in his bald spot. Now Roxie, not even yet thirty, has sworn off men and is building a successful business with her website www.i-vomit-on-all-men.com.
And if her own bitterness were not enough, she's dealing with an insecure, aggressive rescue dog that fails every obedience class and gets kicked out of every day care. Which might not be so bad, except for the fact that Lilith also hates men (yes, her name is no coincidence) and vents her displeasure on Roxie's ex-boyfriend's neck one night when he forces himself through her front door, enraged over a thinly veiled attack on Roxie's website. And even that might not be the end of the world, except for the fact that Roxie's only hope of rescuing Lilith from impound and saving her from the death sentence the ex-boyfriend wants to ensure is yet another man, a sexy cowboy-type with whom Roxie shares an explosive – and unwanted – sexual chemistry.
Eli Gallagher is not entirely at home in San Francisco, but he promised his friend Rick Rousseau (of the first book in the series, Ain't Too Proud to Beg) that he would help him with dog training at his newly opened Bay Area pet store. Informally dubbed the "dog whisperer," Eli may strike people as perfectly calm and in charge, but he is troubled by the revelation that the man who raised him and recently died was not his biological father. So while he helps Rick get one of his new stores off the ground, Eli is also tracking down potential fathers among several men his mother knew during her first year at UC Berkeley, where she found herself single and pregnant. Dealing with Roxie Bloom's hostility, despite her enticingly beautiful dark hair and fair skin, is a complication Eli neither needs nor wants, but it seems the two cannot avoid each other. And when Roxie calls Eli in a breathless panic, begging him to help her rescue and rehabilitate her beloved Lilith, Eli's natural graciousness and reluctant attraction guarantee his immediate agreement and the beginning of a volatile and passionate relationship between Roxie and Eli.
Let me say right off the top that for me Not That Kind of Girl rode the knife's edge between enchanting and cringe-inducing. Eli needs to gently train Roxie's dog, but in order to do that, he needs to gently train Roxie, as well (he even uses the phrase "settle down, sweet thing" while they are in bed. Yes, I winced and groaned, as well). And I have no doubt that the metaphor was selected and executed intentionally, because Roxie's ex, the narcissistic Raymond Sandberg, thinks of all women as "bitches" who must submit and be tamed. Roxie, having been burned by Sandberg's cruelty, is highly suspicious of Eli's gentling and aware that her baffling attraction to him undercuts everything she knows and believes about being a strong, independent woman. When "God's gift to dogs and girls" comes into her home and insists on marking the territory in preparation for training Lilith, Roxie can barely stand it, because it's a clear invasion of her space, as well. And I appreciated that awareness on Roxie's part, because it made me feel that the whole "dog whisperer " thing wasn't being fed to me without irony. This isn't a book about a girl who falls in love with alpha male Caesar Milan and lives happily ever after with him and his hundred dogs; this is a book about a woman who's been hurt and who has to deal with her own power and control issues in order to be happy and at peace with her insecure dog and the man who best suits her. And secondarily, it's about a man who does not completely fit the "gentler" stereotype that so many women around him find appealing.
The basic plot structure of the book is not complex: Roxie has limited time before doggie court to make Lilith well-behaved, well-adjusted, and calm. That forces an intense relationship between Roxie and Eli, which in turn forces them to deal with the feelings they have for one another. Roxie is doubly resistant, because before all this she invited Eli out to lunch and he refused, which makes one more rejection she can use to nurse her resentment. She does not know that Eli was nursing his own rejection at the time, and was afraid of what might happen with Roxie, given his strong attraction to her. So in a whirlwind of travel between San Francisco, Sonoma, and Utah, the two now work to break down the numerous barriers between them. Roxie has to learn to trust again and to serve as a calm and trustworthy pack leader to Lilith, while Eli has to trust that Roxie will accept his dual nature (gentle teacher and controlling, potentially overpowering lover). This element of Eli's character was interesting, and I wish its implications for the stereotypical alpha hero had been explored more. Also, I appreciated the fact that Eli had blond, curling hair (men don't have to sport the black forest on their chest to be sexy and masculine!) and a kind nature. However, at heart this is really Roxie's book, and her intelligence and likeability represent a lot of what made it enjoyable to me.
The third (and last?) in a series featuring four women ranging in age from late 20s to mid-50s, Not That Kind of Girl is unequivocally a "chick book." The strong, female friendships among these four women anchor the series, and even when I haven't enjoyed the other books in the series, I've enjoyed and appreciated the raucous, honest, and supportive bond among the women. Two of them are now enormously pregnant. Josie insists she's so big she has her "own gravitational pull," such that she "wake[es] up sometimes and see my toiletries orbiting around the bed," while Ginger is afraid that giving birth in her 40s means she's going to "snap like a dried-out Thanksgiving wishbone." Bea, the unmarried 50-something sportswriter with a dachshund named Martina (stereotype alert!), is trying to keep both of them calm so that their not-so-slightly over-reacting husbands won't panic (there is one scene in which the women are laughing so hard that the men think they're in labor that's reminiscent of "I Love Lucy"). In this book, both Roxie and Bea find their romantic HEA's. Bea's sweet relationship with another woman is relegated to secondary status, but presents a welcome change of pace from previous Donovan books, where gay characters are generally either villains or less than flattering caricatures.
As for Roxie and Eli, I do not believe that the book ever really subverts the "heroine gentled into love by the hero" stereotype, in large part because it doesn't seem like Roxie would have grown on her own without Eli's intervention. I love the process by which a heroine learns the difference between dependence and interdependence, settling finally into a relationship of two independent, interconnected characters, but Roxie seems more "healed" by Eli than evolved on her own into her personal happiness and peace. Further, her rapid transition from a self-described "man-hating demon succubus" to "floating on a fluffy cloud of love" completely contravenes the depth of bitterness we're supposed to get from her. Which, frankly, was fine with me, since I didn't want the book to delve any deeper into "hero heals the angry, traumatized heroine" territory. I liked Roxie and rooted for her happiness, but didn't want her to lose the sassy edge that made Eli's deep attraction to her so believable. Like when she tells Eli's mother that her "bitterness" won't ruin Eli:
"So, yeah, I had some bad experiences and I let them get to me, but I'm learning to let it go, a little bit every day, because I don't want to live like that anymore. Eli's been helping me find a different approach. Now, if that's not good enough for you – if my desire to do better and my sincere affection for your son isn't enough – then I guess you're shit out of luck, and you're the one who's going to be bitter."
Although she likely won't ever have to deal with a cigar put out on her head…
If it seems that I'm talking about this book somewhat elliptically, well, I am. Because beyond the simple plot construction I mentioned, this book is about a number of different relationships, and it's a blend of farce, Romance, and chick lit. Much of the farce has a rom com feel, and there is an over-the-top quality to the villainy in the story. The dog court scene reminded me of the court scene from What's Up Doc? with Barbara Streisand and Ryan O'Neill, if that gives you a sense of what the humor is like. There are also numerous things I found problematic, from the way Eli treats his mother after her revelation (despite being portrayed as Mr. Perfect), the implications of what happened to her the night she got pregnant (a HUGE thing that's simply brushed over, in my opinion), the revelation and implications of who Eli's father is (I guessed it, and so did the heroine at one point, although she initially dismisses the idea), the sticky-sweet epilogue, and the reference to "craggy mountains" in Somona (locals refer to them as "rolling hills").
Objectively, there is enough in this book to keep the feminist and lit scholar in me busy for quite a while. But as a reader, as someone who picked up this book with trepidation and found that I could barely put it down, it got to me. The writing is witty and most of the characters are pleasantly down to earth (although I'll be thrilled when Romance isn't so quick to embrace the eeevil villain). Several scenes had me laughing out loud, and I felt the book did a nice job of humbling Roxie without humiliating her. And even though I felt a little guilty enjoying it so much ("settle down, sweet thing" *cringe*), I cannot blame the book for that; in fact, that's a testament to how successful Not That Kind of Girl ultimately was for me. B
~Janet aka Robin