REVIEW: Lip Service by Susan Mallery
Dear Ms. Mallery,
That I endeavored to read Lip Service is probably a surprise to anyone who read my Twitter entries about the first book in the Titan sisters series (Under Her Skin), since that book hit quite a few of my hot buttons. But a good experience with the Buchanan series and active curiosity about the suspense subplot in Under Her Skin got me to give the second book a try. And I must say that I liked Lip Service quite a bit better than Under Her Skin, in large part because I found the characters of Skye and Mitch more believable and relatable, and their relationship more interesting than Lexi and Cruz’s. Lip Service still wasn’t a real winner for me, but it did offer promise for the remaining two books in the series (sister Izzy and good friend Dana’s stories).
Mitch Cassidy has been gone for almost nine years, and he is not returning home a whole man – at least not according to his definition of the word. Instead, he is returning embittered and incomplete, having lost part of his leg in Afghanistan and most of his faith in life all along the way there and back. Running away from Skye Titan had clearly given him more than he expected, at least in terms of the pain she inflicted when she rejected him for the man her father wanted her to marry, an older family friend the powerful Jed Titan had decided was more appropriate than Mitch. And now that Mitch is back, he is going to make Skye pay for ruining his life, never mind that she is now a widow living with her eight-year-old daughter and powerful-as-ever father right next door. Mitch figures he has nothing to lose, having lost his own parents more than a decade ago, and now seeing that Fidela and Arturo (who ran the ranch and were closer to Mitch than his parents had ever really been) have turned the ranch into a organic beef and free-range chicken outfit. Mitch really hates chickens.
Skye Titan has lost two out of the three men she loved and depended on. First there was Mitch, who was her first and most passionate lover, then Ray, whom she grew to love, even though he was old enough to be her father. The only man left is her own father, who insisted that Skye marry the man he chose for her, sending Mitch off to god knew where all those years ago. Was it a coincidence that right as Mitch was coming home, Jed was picking out yet another man for Skye, a man who, it seemed also had eyes for Skye’s beautiful, adrenaline-junkie sister, Izzy? Coincidence or not, Skye has a daughter to raise now and a foundation to run. And besides that, she and her sisters are still dealing with the man who has set out to ruin the Titans, millionaire Titan bastard Garth Duncan, who has been planting small and large grenades in every Titan-run business, including Skye’s foundation, sister Lexi’s day spa, and Jed’s various corporate entities. Even if she is ready to start dating again, Skye feels nowhere near ready to get deeply involved with anyone.
Except that Skye and Mitch have always had so much passion between them, and despite Mitch’s anger and Skye’s grief, that spark has not been extinguished over the many years and tears between their last contact. And once Mitch realizes that Skye’s daughter, Erin, is just old enough to possibly be his, he thinks he has the way to pay Skye back for her disloyalty: he’s going to prove his paternity of Erin and take the girl away from her mother. That Skye insists Erin is Ray’s child means nothing to Mitch, who is hell bent on making the world pay for his missing leg and lost love.
Just as in Under Her Skin, there are two main plot lines in Lip Service, one running the trajectory of Mitch and Skye’s reunion and one running along Garth Duncan’s plan for revenge against the Titans. The plot line tracing Mitch and Skye’s relationship is much more successful for me, in large part because of the attention paid to Mitch’s amputation and its emotional effect on him and way both he and Skye have a lot of healing to do. I found it completely believable, for example, that Mitch would resent his amputation, especially since he left in the first place because Skye rejected him and on the heels of his parents’ death (they were killed while on one of their many trips), he really did feel quite alone. So when he returns to what is now his ranch and finds that the cows are getting more attention than more than a few children do (everything related to organic cows must be recorded and certified) and that chickens roam free (he initially tries to help the coyotes catch and eat them), his feelings of self-pity and alienation are firmly and believably developed.
And as Romance readers know, the angry, grieving, emotionally out of touch pity party of a hero is practically irresistible to the upright, seemingly together, wildly beautiful but soberly responsible heroine (as well as to many readers of the genre). Something about that combination almost always works, especially if the hero gets his crap together at some point and the heroine’s veneer of impermeability and responsibility crumbles. For a while it does not look like Mitch is going to climb out of his hole, especially with his conviction that Skye has kept his child from him. But a combination of factors – from a no nonsense physical therapist to a tragedy involving the man who saved Mitch – force him to come to terms with his own life choices and his self-destruction, which in turn keeps his character from maudlin immaturity.
Skye, on the other hand, is actually a character I enjoyed more in Lexi’s book, in part because of the incredible and degrading hold her father has over her in Lip Service. Not only do we find out that Skye found her mother’s body following her suicide, but we also know that her mother killed herself because Jed did not love her. So while Mitch may have depended on Skye for his sense of emotional stability (another believable aspect of his character), Skye’s initial loyalty was to her father, a man who systematically and routinely withheld his love from all of his children. So even though Skye cried the first time she and Ray slept together (and yes, it was just as creepy in the book), she married him and grew to love him. And when her father decides it’s time for husband number two, Skye is actually willing to fight her own sister over the guy when Izzy tries to convince Skye not to trust the ersatz suitor. All of this makes Skye’s character sympathetic and a little sad, which would have been very interesting to me if it wasn’t for the way she handles the business with Garth Duncan, which took up a significant portion of the book.
For those who did not read the first book in the series, Garth’s shenanigans and the Titan’s response (or lack thereof) might not be so frustrating, but for me it was almost a deal-breaker for the entirety of the book. Although we do not yet know why Garth is so fixated on ruining the Titans, we do know he’s been at it for a little while, and despite the family’s legendary wealth and power, he seems to be quite successful in his efforts. From doping some of Jed’s race horses to calling in an anonymous loan on Lexi’s day spa, Garth has been infiltrating Titan businesses, and in this book he makes headway by getting Jed arrested for treasonous activities and hacking into Skye’s foundation’s computer system to make it appear that they are using donations to give outrageous bonuses to the employees. And so what do Jed and Skye do in the face of such shenanigans (insert sound of crickets here)? That’s right – they basically do nothing. Jed, who we’re led to believe is so powerful that he has no problem living up to his last name, calmly goes to jail and has his lawyers bail him out. And Skye, who has much of her own inheritance from her mother invested in her foundation and brags of feeding more than a million hungry children a day, seems positively flummoxed at the problem. She doesn’t even want to tell her people, because she doesn’t think she should. And when one of the IT guys comes to her and tells her he’s figured out how "someone" got into the system and offers her the opportunity to strike back or gather information from that other party, she turns him down.
Now to some degree I understood that Skye felt loyal to her father, the guy who thought that ordering her to marry the man of his choice or face fake insanity charges was perfectly okay, but even taking that into consideration, the incredible lack of action from this family has been undermining my confidence in their power/wealth/intelligence since book one. So here, it makes it quite difficult for me to feel a great deal of confidence in Skye as a capable, independent woman. And because Jed seems to have made a quantum leap from jerky to downright heinous in this book – so overtly swinish and bullying that it’s impossible to imagine how these women grew up with this guy without being total wimps or killing him years ago – Skye’s loyalty becomes something akin to terrible judgment, which in turn undermines the extent to which I can buy her as a strong, independent, albeit flawed heroine. That level of insecurity may have played when she was 18, but for a woman of almost 30 with a good deal of life experience and a foundation under her supervision, it really does not work for me, and I don’t understand why it works for Mitch, who does not seem like the kind of man who thrives with a weak woman.
Beyond the inconsistent characterization and plotting there is the writing, which is also very up and down for me. There are, on the one hand, some genuinely funny moments of snappy dialogue, like this exchange between T.J. Boone (potential husband number two) and Izzy:
"You hesitated when Jed offered you Skye. I can’t believe you had the nerve to think about it. She’s worth ten of you."
"Wait a minute. My hesitation wasn’t about Skye. She’s a beautiful woman."
"So were you concerned about the size of your equipment" Izzy interrupted with a smirk.
"I was making a point with your father." He leaned against the post by the stairs. "And for future reference, I’ve never had complaints about the size of my equipment."
"Most women are too polite to complain in person. We only tell each other when we’re disappointed."
Or here, with Skye’s consternation with her persistent attraction to Mitch:
Despite everything that had happened, despite what she’d said, she was happy to see him. She wanted to go to him and hold him. She wanted to do a whole lot more than that, which probably meant she needed some intensive therapy or at the very least a self-help book with a snappy title.
But then there are the moments where way too much is spelled out and others full of interminable and unanswered questions these characters all too often ask themselves. Mitch, for example:
He wondered if Skye hadn’t slept well. Had she been haunted, as he had? Ha she relived their time together? Had his harsh words wounded her?
How was he adjusting? What did he miss the most? Was there still pain? . . . Care about Mitch again? Risk it all?
You’d think with all these questions there would be more self-awareness, especially on Skye’s part. And yet, of the two, Mitch actually seems the most reflective and the most self-aware (and if that doesn’t sound so good, at times it definitely isn’t). In fact, there is an important point in their relationship late in the book that depends on Mitch’s maturity, because Skye does something that made it very difficult to see her as capable of being happy and emotionally healthy in any relationship. Again, the tension with her father and his approval is present in her character, but there really is a fine line between portraying the fears she has grown up under and crippling her as an independent character, and the book wavers too much back and forth across that line. And it really flattened out what could have been a spectacularly emotional relationship between Mitch and Skye, making his journey to self-acceptance less satisfying than it otherwise might have been.
Instead what I found was a sometimes entertaining, sometimes extremely frustrating, sometimes painful (and not in a good way) read. I suspect that the stories of the two women left – Izzy and Dana – are going to be the best of the series unless their characters are completely gutted, as they are most definitely the wittiest and snappiest of the bunch. And I think that’s what this series really needs right now – heroines who really are as complex as they are advertized to be, and who can stand up to the promise of independence made in these first books. As for the Garth storyline, I am still curious to see how it resolves itself, but am more doubtful now than I was after Under Her Skin, that the resolution will be convincing.
While I was reading Lip Service, I kept feeling that it was a C-, but when I sat down to write the review, I was feeling more like it hit a C. So I will let both grades stand and say that it definitely had some highs and some lows, and that while stronger than the first for me, I hope the last two books in the series better match the two strong women remaining.