REVIEW: The Great Escape by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Dear Ms. Phillips:
Your novels, when they work well, are like excellent banana pudding. I idolize banana pudding. It’s the ideal comfort/pleasure food. Good banana pudding is softly hued, has just enough variety in its makeup to keep it from being boring, is sweet without being cloying, and, after I’ve inhaled it, I’m unchanged but content. The Great Escape is not great banana pudding. It’s tolerable banana pudding, and, yikes, I’m abandoning this metaphor right now.
The Great Escape is Lucy Jorik’s story. Ms. Phillips fans first met Lucy in First Lady as the daughter of future president (and unbelievable heroine) Cornelia Case. Lucy grew up in the White House, always in the public eye, and, when last seen in the irritating Call Me Irresistible, she’d bailed moments before she was to marry one of my least favorite SEP heroes, practically perfect in every way, Teddy Beaudine. Prior to The Great Escape, readers knew Lucy was one time-zone away from Texas but had no idea where she’d gone.
Now we do and, frankly, it’s lame.
After Lucy ran out of the church, clad in an “exquisite French bra, her lacy bridal panties, blue garter, and white satin stilettos” and a choir robe (she’d ripped off her headpiece, gown, and veil and dumped them in the vestry), she met a man on a motorcycle.
The motor idled as he took his time studying her. One black boot hit the gravel. “S’up?” he said over the engine noise.
He had too-long black hair that curled pat his collar, cold blue eyes set above high cheekbones, and sadistic lips. After so many years of Secret Service protection, she’d grown used to taking her safety for granted, but she didn’t feel safe now, and the fact that she dimly remembered the biker as a guest at last night’s rehearsal dinner–one of Ted’s odd assortment of friends–didn’t exactly reassure her. Even semi-cleaned up in a dark suit that didn’t fit well, a rumpled white shirt open at the collar, and motorcycle boots that appeared to have received nothing more than a dusting, he didn’t look like anybody she wanted to meet in an alley….
He jerked his head toward the rear of his bike. “Wanna go for a ride?”
Doggedly good girl Lucy gets on the bike, robe riding up her thighs, and heads out to experience the big bad Secret-Service-free world.
None of this is remotely believable. That’s not so bothersome, however. Ms. Phillips’s works exist in a parallel world where the realities that limit ours–government agents that can’t be escaped by a President’s daughter in stilettos, voters who have yet to elect a young female president, poverty that isn’t really poor, tigers that telepathically communicate with girls named Daisy–hold no sway. She writes that world unapologetically and, especially when it’s set around a mythical Chicago football team, it’s entertaining. (It Had to Be You, Natural Born Charmer, Dream a Little Dream, This Heart of Mine, and the non-Stars based Kiss an Angel = good banana pudding).
No, what’s bothersome is how uninteresting it is, how petty Lucy’s efforts to find herself are. Lucy leaves Ted, her family, her best friend Meg, and their expectations at the altar. She rejects the limiting life she’s had growing up in the public eye. What does she do with this freedom she’s finally grabbed for herself?
She gets picked up by a taciturn guy named Panda riding a bike that bears this bumper sticker: GAS, GRASS, OR ASS. NOBODY RIDES FOR FREE. He wheels her away, acting like a lout, to days of crappy fast food and chaste nights in low rent rooms. Lucy doesn’t have money or a cell phone, so she uses his. She hides behind his badass swagger; no one notices her in the dives they frequent, they’re all too twitchy with fear of and/or desire for Panda. Lucy tells herself she’s working on her bad biker babe skills. She renames herself Viper, practices sneering, and spends her days thinking up surly girl repartee to impress Panda.
This goes on, rather incomprehensibly for two Secret Service free weeks and 67 pages. Then, in short order, Lucy and Panda have Dairy Queen described sex (“Flurry. Quake. Flood.”), Panda dumps Lucy, explains what he’s really been doing with her, and Lucy runs away again, this time to a picturesque island in the Great Lakes where she thinks Panda regularly goes (she found a ferry pass in his pocket.)
At this point, the novel becomes not about escape, but about finding the holy grail of fictional bliss: a safe harbor. (I’m convinced Ms. Phillips planned to call this book Safe Harbor for both the phrase and the concept appear frequently.)
Lucy, who has disguised herself to look like, yes, a biker girl complete with dreads, too tight tank tops, black combat books, and press-on tattoos, arrives via ferry to Charity Island, in Saginaw Bay. (The island really exists. It’s in Michigan waters of Lake Huron.) There, she lies to a couple of chatty locals who tell her that “a dude named Panda” “bought the old Remington place out on Goose Cove” a couple of years ago. Lucy heads to the empty house, breaks in (Viper, the girl with the fake dragon tattoo, strikes again!), and, after returning her rental car back to the mainland, buys some groceries, and begins living there.
She settles in, scours and rearranges Panda’s vacation (?) home, and tries to write her part of her famous mother’s biography which she’s utterly unable to do. After a week of this, Panda appears and he and Lucy begin again. He tells her his real name, where he lives (most of the time), and tells her to go home. She doesn’t. He agrees, after some Viper applied guilt about the sex they had, to let Lucy stay for a month, rent-free, in his house. He won’t be there, he says. He’s got a job to do elsewhere.
Up until this point in the novel, I’d found nothing to hold my interest. Lucy annoyed me with her posturing, Panda’s “I’m pretending to be a big jerk” schtick grated. In the second two-thirds of the book, Panda’s and Lucy’s exasperating relationship became one of several story lines. The book leaves contemporary romance behind and moves into the hazy realm of women’s fiction. Furthermore, although she does it in ways that leave her vulnerable to accusations of tokenism and misinterpretation of young black males, closeted lesbians, and veterans with PTSD, Ms. Phillips expands her cast of characters beyond the white and witty.
I liked the descriptions of life on Charity Island. The island has a small year-round population and Ms. Phillips shows the life behind the fruit stands. At times, her writing is lovely. Whether describing the bees kept by Bree, the depressed divorcee whose family once owned Panda’s house, or showing the ease with which teen tourists wreak havoc, the prose in this part of the novel is strong and occasionally moving. Her familiar themes of family and community are well-done. If I had to articulate the ethos of Ms. Phillip’s Charity Island, it would be it takes a village to raise us all, a village made of all kinds. There is a vague hectoring sense to this novel, but it didn’t distress me. In The Great Escape, kindness, charity, tolerance, and acceptance are all trumpeted. It’s done with a somewhat awkward horn, but I appreciated the message nonetheless.
Sadly, the end of the novel is, in all sorts of ways, the pits. The focus returns to Panda and Lucy the latter of whom opts for icky shenanigans in order to win Panda… which he is fine with. There’s a spouse/spawn epilogue as treacley as any I’ve encountered. If I could burn books–I can’t, I’m the daughter of a librarian–the last twenty pages of this book would be toast.
I give it a C.
P.S. Here’s a recipe for my favorite banana pudding.
Yeah, didn’t like this one, found it very contrived and forced. I liked the previous one okay – Teddy isn’t really that perfect, he just seems so at first.
The last SEP book I loved was Natural Born Charmer.
Great review, Dabney, and accurate, too, imo. I enjoy SEP’s books in general and have been bothered–not in a good way–by others like this one, for all the reasons you mentioned here. They can sometimes be a little too pat and magically pulled together, and yet I will defend to the death my total fangirl squee for Natural Born Charmer.
I appreciate when reviews make me pay closer attention to and think about details, while leaving my enjoyment of the book as a whole undiminished. Well done.
Lovely review, Dabney. I love the banana pudding description! So apt to describe SEP.
Unfortunately, this book sounds kinda horrible. On top of that, I just refuse to read a book where the hero’s name is Panda. Full stop, no further discussion. ;)
Banana pudding, mmmmmmm…..
I was happy to read a recent SEP that didn’t rely on humiliating the heroine in order to “earn” her redemption, although there was humiliation a-plenty for the secondary romances — I rather liked the sweet “second-chance” story, but the very stereotypical and downright WEIRD lesbian storyline was mildly rage-inducing.
(FWIW, I was fond of Teddy and Meg both in the previous story; I just wanted to set the rest of the town on fire.)
And ditto on the egregious sickly epilogue.
Natural Born Charmer is my favourite SEP. It has one of the funniest first pages of any book I have ever read: A gorgeous guy, an Aston Martin and someone in a beaver costume. LOL. A delicious story.
The Great Escape, Call Me Irresistible and What I Did for Love were very disappointing and in my opinion truly awful books. Hated.Hated.Hated the re-issue of Glitter Baby!
The main protagonists in all the latest novels were so unlikeable and even the secondary romance, which SEP has always been so brilliant at weaving into the story were a bore. I also don’t care for the runaway bride/switch partners tropes, almost always too unbeliveable…….oh and Lucy’s getaway and later disguise is utterly ridiculous.
Panda? I with you Diana, one of the stupidest hero names ever!
She’s done the runaway bride and motorcycle dude bit before–in HOT SHOT, which is one reason why I wasn’t interested in this (and I never liked the Beaudine fam anyway).
I have loved SEP for years, but I finally FINALLY broke up with her after WHAT I DID FOR LOVE. She’s been repeating herself for a while and though I thought I was done with her after NATURAL BORN CHARMER, like a junkie, I finally succumbed to WHAT I DID FOR LOVE, which was so obviously Brangelina I couldn’t get past it and, YET AGAIN, she didn’t bring anything new to her own table.
This is one of those instances where somebody needs to stop at the top of their game (although I think she passed the top some time ago).
I too haven’t liked her last three novels (don’t like Glitter Baby either). There were long stretches of this novel, however, that felt very different to me than Call Me Irresistible and What I Did for Love. One of my favorite women’s fiction books is an early Alice Hoffman called Illumination Night. It too is set on an island. When SEP was writing about life on Charity Island, the novel worked for me. When she wrote about non-romance issues in this book, she was far more enticing.
I’d like to see her abandon romance and write a straight out novel. I could see her doing that well.
@Diana: @leslie: Apparently, if you sign up on SEP’s website for her special access lounge, you can find out how Panda got his name. Whatever the reason, it’s still too silly an appellation. His real name is Patrick Slade. Why not stick with that moniker?
@Moriah Jovan: Me too. Those same two books were the end of my rel with SEP. I thought NBC was derivitive and boring and WIDFL was the last straw.
@dabney – I agree. I’d love to see her write women’s fiction and give romance a rest for awhile.
@cleo: See, I love Natural Born Charmer. I like Dean’s parents’ story, Riley’s story, and Dean and Blue made me laugh.
@Dabney: I think I would have liked Natural Born Charmer more if I hadn’t read all of her previous books first – to me, reading it was like playing “where have I read this before?” – I recognized too many character traits, situations, and plot points from other (more beloved by me) SEP books.
Plus, as a visual artist, I had trouble suspending disbelief about Blue’s career. I was kind of ok with the whole not planning out a mural or getting approval before starting painting, because hey, I know that SEP romances operate in an alternate universe, but getting a show in a gallery that’s going to open in a couple months – just no, galleries plan their schedules at least a year in advance and you just can’t waltz in and get a show like that. Other than her completely unrealistic gallery show (I’m not going to lie – I’m kind of jealous of her fictional success) I liked Blue.
I absolutely agree with your review, Dabney. This one was such a disappointment. I couldn’t stand how Lucy got Panda back (totally repugnant tactics), the epilogue was nauseating, and how she could let an entire novel go by with a hero named Panda and not explain it is beyond me. (Yeah, yeah, it’s on her website. But how many hundreds of fans complained before she put it there? It should have been a no-brainer, IMO. How could she give him that name and NOT explain it?) This was another book I listened to over the summer and spent many a night walking the dog and muttering disgustedly under my breath at the characters. Maybe that’s why the neighbors give me a wide berth now…?
I used to love everything SEP wrote. (Well, okay…I loved the Chicago Stars books and have read them over and over. The ones written earlier were okay, some better than others but mostly enjoyable, at least once around.) I agree with other posters–Charmer was probably the last one I loved wholeheartedly; though I did like Ted and Meg in the book before this one, I hated the rest of the town, including Ted’s family and friends, for the most part.
I’m thinking I’ll be getting her books from the library from now on, which makes me sad.
Oh yes, WHAT I DID FOR LOVE was awful. The whole time reading I went “Jennifer Aniston! Brad Pitt! Angelina Jolie!”
Such lazy writing.
@Moriah Jovan: I commented to Dabney this morning on Twitter that the set up sounded EXACTLY like Hot Shot, right down to the surly, dark-haired, practically unkempt biker who rides up and rescues the socialite at her wedding. I read HS pretty recently, so it was fresh in my mind when I read this review, part of me curious to see how much was recycled, part of me totally uninterested/frustrated in what her books have been doing lately.
Question: what does Panda do for a living?
@Robin/Janet: He does private security work but his job description encompasses somehow being responsible for his clients.
@Robin/Janet: And I read HOT SHOT somewhere around 1992 or 1993, and STILL remembered it the second I read that. Thing is, I adored HOT SHOT, so I’m a bit resentful at the recycling of such a detail.
Now, all my SEP seething frustration aside, and given the fact that I loved HOT SHOT, KISS AN ANGEL is one of only 10 books on my DIK shelf, and I loved AIN’T SHE SWEET. (I also remember liking HONEY MOON way back in the day, but don’t remember much else about it.)
@Dabney: Well, at least she didn’t completely recycle Sam.
@Moriah Jovan: Especially since it was such a dramatic element in Hot Shot. Is Kiss An Angel the circus one? Those earlier books are more complex and interesting to me, even though I don’t necessarily adore them — or rather, they have some elements I’m not all that comfortable with. I really liked Ain’t She Sweet, though, except for the epilogue, which I have to mentally block out of or I feel stabby. Ditto Dream A Little Dream, which is another of my fave SEP’s (save the epilogue).
Yes. It was/is one of the most unique premises for a romance I’ve ever read. IMO, she’s never topped it, not before or since.
@Moriah Jovan: Yeah, I agree about the premise. I also liked the relationship between the heroine and the teenaged girl she befriends.
@Moriah Jovan: Completely agree with you Moriah on Kiss An Angel. I haven’t bothered to read her books of late since I’m reading mysteries but I got the impression that she’s doing some women’s fiction bits and I’m not interested in reading that. When fans stop paying for her books that’s when I think she’ll finally get the message you think?
I have to agree with your review. I found Lucy to be extremely juvenile and petty in her journey to “independence.”. It was like she went through a reverse mid life crisis. I also never bought the romance between her and Panda. I enjoyed the secondary romance/storyline much better. Bree had the journey I wanted for Lucy.
@Tori: I kept having the word “brat” flash through my head.
YES! She was a brat. And all her whining about having to babysit her younger siblings and how she was never allowed a childhood. 0_O She wasn’t the Lucy from the earlier books.
The most interesting thing to me about SEP is how strongly readers differ in which books of hers they like. Books others adore are ones I don’t care at all for and I know my favorite of hers ( Ain’t She Sweet ) is one many readers don’t like at all. I imagine as long as reactions are so varied, she retains enough of an audience to keep writing.
I found this book very…meh which is basically how you described it. And the whole “Panda” thing was stoopid.
@Lada: Now I’m thinking about that. And it’s interesting. Thanks!
@Dabney: You know, it might be interesting to write about. Linda Howard is exactly the same, readers vary widely in which books of hers they love. And it’s clear when sites do “favorites of all time” surveys that authors like Nora Roberts don’t do as well because readers all have different favorites.
It seems like authors with series are a little different. I don’t read Janet Evanovich or Charlain Harris but I don’t recall readers pin-pointing must reads versus clunkers within those series. I could be wrong about that though since readers have not had that same problem with JR Ward. ;-)