Dear Ms. Evanovich:
As a fan of your Stephanie Plum series (and as a reader who masochistically enjoys being tortured by the unresolved love triangle), I have been slowly reading your early category Romances as they are re-released. Naughty Neighbor was released recently on Fictionwise for a 100% micropay rebate, making it an instant purchase for me. And of the four or so early Romances of yours I have read, Naughty Neighbor is my favorite so far. Its strengths – snappy dialogue, snappish hero and heroine, a slightly outlandish mystery to be solved – are those I enjoy in your later work, and its weaknesses – inelegant transitions to the actual romance and discomfort around romantic sentimentalism – make me glad you chose to shift away from straight Romance in your later writing.
Louisa Brannigan has recently celebrated her thirtieth birthday and is focused on career success as pres secretary to an up and coming U.S. Senator. She lives in a modest suburban house that has been converted into two apartments, and Louisa is on the bottom floor. Which would be wonderful if it weren’t for her upstairs neighbor, award-winning screenwriter Pete Streeter, whose intermittent presence is an irritation to Louisa on every level – from the fumes of fried onions that come through the air ducts to settle in her apartment to his middle-of-the-night phone calls that inexplicably ring on her own phone, as well. Pete finds Louisa equally annoying, especially when she has the nerve to come after the paper he steals off her front porch, especially after she has woken him up yet again with her 5:30 a.m. alarm. Both Pete and Louisa are on their last nerve – Pete because of the unexpected danger he has found himself in while doing research for a new screenplay, and Louisa because of her high-stress job. But neither of them realizes, yet, that they have far more in common than their well-developed mutual annoyance.
Unbeknownst to both Pete and Louisa, the senator she works for has some mysterious connection to the threats Pete has been receiving, and when some of the thugs sent to “warn” Pete mistake Louisa’s modest black compact car for Pete’s black Porsche, and Louisa unexpectedly loses her job, the two are forced into a reluctant partnership to unravel a mysterious conspiracy involving political favors, insurance fraud, drugs, and a pig farm. In the process, Pete and Louisa reluctantly begin to yield to the inevitable attraction between them.
Physically speaking, Louisa reminds me a lot of Stephanie Plum – longish curly brown hair, blue eyes, 5’6,” loves Boston cream doughnuts – but she is much more focused and conscious in planning out her life. Although she is relationship-challenged, Louisa is hardly desperate, which makes her attraction to Pete so surprising to her. After all, she knows herself pretty well, understanding that she is “aggressive” but not “assertive,” not particularly good at confrontation despite her strong will and sharp focus. Hollywood-man Pete comes across as nothing she would find appealing, beyond, of course, his “movie star handsome” looks (a proto-Morelli type, with a bad-boy past and sexual appetite perpetually in starvation mode), surprisingly-developed culinary skills, and that appealing whiff of sex and danger she gets off of him every time they are in close proximity.
Pete is equally surprised at the strength of his attraction, as Louisa has previously been little more than an early morning irritation (he can hear everything in her apartment, too, including her lowering her zipper, as he snidely informs her) and mild entertainment (when he overhears her phone conversations with her mother). But he is nonetheless drawn to her “flawless milk-white skin, a snippy little nose, a short fuse, and a large chunk of stubborn.” He realizes that her personality “lean[s] toward the volatile” and he likes it. The suppressed romantic in him is simultaneously turned on by her spirit and frustrated that she won’t let him play macho-protector man.
What worked best for me in Naughty Neighbor is the fast-paced banter between Pete and Louisa and the slightly loony schemes they concoct to unravel the mystery behind Louisa’s firing and the threats against Pete. For example, I loved the scene in which they need to come up with a way to search the house of another senator:
[Pete] turned the wattage up on the smile. “I’m in Washington doing a new screenplay, and like I said, I’ve been out scouting locations. I wonder if we could come in for a minute?””,
“Ommigod, you want to use this house in a movie? I can’t believe it. That would be like so excellent.”
“There might even be a small part in it for you,” Pete said.
Louisa made a gagging sound behind him.
“What’s wrong with her?” the girl asked. “Why is she making those megagross sounds?”
“She’s pregnant,” Pete told her. “She has morning sickness all day long. It’s really pretty disgusting. Try to ignore her.”
Louisa kicked him in the back of the leg, and he took a blind swipe at her, catching her on the shoulder, knocking her off balance.
“Whoa,” the teenager said. “Very alpha.”
At one point Louisa accidentally locks herself out of her apartment while checking on a bird who flew into her window, and Pete finds her outside in the cold without a coat, unable to break into the house without setting off a newly installed alarm system:
“You don’t suppose the bird was prophetic, do you?” she asked Streeter. “I mean, it couldn’t possibly be the word of God, making a statement to the effect of bashing one’s head against a brick wall, or trying to fly to unrealistic heights, could it?”
“What kind of bird was it?”
“A little gray bird.”
“Definitely not the word of God. God uses big birds to send messages. Condors and eagles. Maybe an occasional albatross. Your little gray bird probably forgot to put his contacts in when he got up this morning.”
For the most part, the attraction between Louisa and Pete is realistic and completely enjoyable to read, in large part because the sparring works for these two stubborn, slightly volatile personalities, helping to build and sustain a sense of intimacy between them.
What didn’t work as well for me were the deeper aspects of their relationship, or I should say, the speed with which Pete and Louisa seem to fall in luuuv. Part of this, I think, is the downside of short novels, but it also strikes me as consistent with a writing style that has evolved into one that articulates a very ambivalent relationship to sentimentality and a slower pace of romantic commitment. In, Naughty Neighbor, though, less than one day is all that’s necessary to take Pete from thinking of Louisa as a relatively pretty “fruitcake” to having “an intense, irrational craving to see more of” her. By the third chapter he’s already falling for her, and while Pete is revealed to be a bit of a closet romantic, for a guy who has never been in love and has been acquainted with many women, the speed of his descent just feels awkward to me, not romantic. I suspect it took him a bit longer to bond with his cat, Spike, who Pete thinks of as his best friend.
Also, I kept wondering how it was that these two had never laid eyes on each other when they had both lived there for an indeterminate time. Despite the fact that Pete travels extensively, they know enough about each other from the inadvertent eavesdropping that it seems they would have run into each other before the time period of the story. Of course the fact that I was trying to figure this out in the middle of the book indicates my inability to suspend disbelief when it came to the “almost immediately in love” part of their relationship development.
Louisa struggles a bit more actively with her emotions, in part because she is trying to avoid Pete’s fast hands (he has a unique talent for unhooking and entirely removing Louisa’s front closure bras without her knowing), and that feels a bit more realistic. Overall, I don’t think more pages would have solved the problem, because I suspect that the humor and the quirkiness of the characters would wear out its welcome, canceling out the benefit of having the romance play out more leisurely.
Consequently, while this book is labeled and structured as a more traditional Romance, its strengths for me were more strongly characteristic of romantic comedy and light mystery. However, for those readers who dislike the love triangle in the Stephanie Plum series, a book like Naughty Neighbor may work much better for them. I really liked the fact that Louisa is less desirous of commitment than Pete is, and that she isn’t simply looking for a man to solve her problems. The Washington, D.C. setting was different – in a good way. I liked Louisa’s slightly nutty family and Pete’s eccentric friend Kurt, because these characters help contextualize Pete and Louisa as characters and at least in Kurt’s case, help advance the mystery plot. While I felt that some things about this book foreshadow the Plum series, it provides enough distinction to be entertaining as a separate creation. For a relatively short book, Naughty Neighbor was a substantially entertaining B read.