Spoiler: They Make Babies

This grape tastes funny.

Posted in Romance Review by spoilerbaby on February 26, 2010

I purchased What I Did for Love (2009), by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, on a random bookstore trip.  After I’d finished that, I decided to reread one of my favorite of Phillips’ books, Dream a Little Dream (1998).  When I went to the library, only a few days later, I found one of Phillips’ novels that I hadn’t read yet, Breathing Room (2003).  One of the dangers of reading three novels by the same author in rapid succession, I found, is that the author’s formula becomes glaringly obvious.

Feisty heroine, once riding high and now down on her luck, has to retreat to another place:

  • Dream a Little Dream: Rachel Stone was once queen of her televangelist husband’s flock. Now she’s a widow. Her dead husband blamed his embezzlement on her before he died, so everyone in the town where she once lived hates her.  Her son is quiet and withdrawn. She has no money, no proper clothes, no house, and no job. She returns to Salvation to search for the treasure she thinks her unscrupulous husband left behind.
  • Breathing Room: Dr. Isabel Favor is an internationally-known self-help guru. Then, her accountant makes off with all of her money; even worse, Favor discovers that the accountant paid none of her back taxes. On the same day, her former assistant goes to the tabloids to denounce her as a crazy control freak, and her fiance dumps her. Favor has no choice but to retreat, and so — after she pays her back taxes — she goes to Italy.
  • What I Did For Love: Georgie York starred in one of America’s favorite sitcoms. Now, though, she’s only acted in a string of bad romcoms, her husband publicly left her for another woman, and she can’t seem to get a break.  She goes to Vegas to get away from it all.

Heroine’s bad luck involves a former flame gone wrong:

  • Dream a Little Dream: Reverend Snopes seduced Rachel into marriage with his charm. Then he expected her to act like a frozen virgin while he cavorted with other women. Eventually he blamed his sin on her before flying off with his followers’ money and dying before the record could be set straight.
  • Breathing Room: Favor’s fiance, Michael, leaves her for another woman.  It’s kind of abrupt, but she doesn’t particularly mind.  Michael points out that this is exactly the problem: their relationship lacks passion.
  • What I Did For Love: York’s former husband, Lance, is the Brad Pitt to her Jennifer Aniston; he left her for a stunningly beautiful, heartbreakingly intelligent, admirably philanthropic, outrageously successful fellow actress.

Not eating enough:

  • DaLD: Rachel stops eating so she can give her food to her son.  She keeps doing this even when they have a roof over their heads and food to spare.
  • BR: Isabel keeps herself trim to fit her guru image.
  • WIDFL: After Lance left her, Georgie couldn’t bear to eat, and she looks emaciated.

And serious daddy issues:

  • DaLD: Rachel was raised by her grandmother, who was very pious and encouraged her marriage to Snopes. Snopes was very much a daddy figure for Rachel.
  • BR: Isabel had hard-partying college professor parents who mostly left her to fend for herself.
  • WIDFL: Georgie’s dad ran her career, from the time that she was a child star to the events of the book; she thinks he cares more about her as a star than as a kid.

There’s a bad-boy love interest with a dark past who rubs the heroine all wrong:

  • DaLD: Gabe, who lost his wife and son in a car accident and CAN NEVER LOVE AGAIN (I love this kind of hero). He attempts to ignore and badger Rachel into leaving him alone.  Rachel refuses to be docile with him.  He finds himself taking care of her in spite of himself and herself.
  • BR: Lorenzo Gage is a movie actor who owns the house Isabel Favor retreats to.  He plays villains on-screen, and tries to convince Isabel that he’s a villain off-screen, too.  His former girlfriend OD’ed, and he blames himself for it.
  • WIDFL: Bramwell Shepard was Georgie’s co-star in the TV show of her childhood.  He’s a total dick, but after a groupie drugs their drinks, they black out and wind up married.  They stay married for the sake of their careers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hate each other.  He’s got a working class background, which makes him stick out in Hollywood.  He finds it hard to see his way out of the hard drinking, hard partying lifestyle that early stardom brought him.

A twist of sexual misadventure between the hero and heroine:

  • DaLD: Gabe implies that Rachel will have to sleep with him to keep a job at his drive-through movie theater (he was a vet, but the death of his wife and child drove him to drink outdated entertainment).  She takes him at his implication and takes off her dress. He stares at her for a while and then makes her put her dress back on.  Awwwwkwarrrrrd!
  • BR: Isabel has sex with Lorenzo Gage without knowing who he is.  They both pretend they don’t speak English, and Isabel believes that Lorenzo is a gigolo.  The sex sucks (because Isabel has ‘issues’ which have not yet been cured by the Hot Manlove Tonic and Bone-Deep Commitment Salve), and she flings money on the floor and flees.
  • WIDFL: Bram and Georgie had sex when they were teenagers; it was technically consensual, but Georgie felt used and humiliated, and Bram intended for her to feel that way.  (I would note this, as the scene is relatively explicit and it might trigger some readers.)

A mystery or conflict of sorts:

  • DaLD: Rachel needs to find Dwayne Snopes’s missing treasure.
  • BR: There’s a fertility statue hidden somewhere in the villa, and the locals really want to find it.
  • WIDFL: Jade and Lance come to talk to Georgie, when it’s revealed that they might have been exposed to SARS (no, seriously). Everyone’s locked in the same house, with Bram’s new project riding on the line.

Mutual orgasms that read more like poetic head trauma:

  • “Green eyes swallowed silver. Silver devoured green.
    ‘Oh Rach…’
    ‘My love…’
    Eyes open, they came together in a melding of souls.”
  • “The shackles that held them to the earth broke free. In the end he became as much a prisoner as she.”
  • “Then their bodies found a perfect rhythm, and speech became impossible. Together they tumbled into the beautiful darkness.”
  • “Not loving him. Only using him.
    He shuddered. She flung back her head.

Despite her concussed sex scenes, Phillips is amazing at writing hurt/comfort.  The heroine is always way down on her luck, but she bootstraps her way back up, finding comfort from someone else along the way.  In my opinion, Dream a Little Dream is one of her better books.  I also liked Kiss From an Angel, Nobody’s Baby But Mine, and Heaven, Texas, among others.  Rachel is probably my favorite heroine out of all of them, though; she’s gutsy and takes no prisoners.

One thing that makes me want to hang on to my copy of What I Did For Love, despite the glaring similarities to Jennifer Aniston’s life, is the relationship between Chaz (Bram’s sharp-tongued housekeeper, whom Bram helped get off the streets and out of sex work) and Aaron (Georgie’s sloppy nerdy personal assistant).  I didn’t really like the portrayal of sex work, or of someone who’s overweight, but they were much cooler, more interesting characters than either Georgie or Bram.  I wanted to read a whole book about Chaz’s developing attraction to Aaron.

What makes Breathing Room special is that it included the most hilarious sex scene I have encountered in a romance novel.  Phillips is pretty good at including lightly kinky things in her novels — a little bit of bondage, oral sex, outdoor sex — which are far from outre but are still remarkable for the strait-laced romance genre.  The food sex in Breathing Room, though, was unbelievably funny.  I recommend reading this out loud to someone, so that you can make grape jokes FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIVES.  The only context you need is that Lorenzo Gage is rubbing a crushed grape on Isabel Favor’s breast.

Slowly, he rubbed the sun-hot pulp over the nipple, making circles, each one coming closer to the erect tip.  She let out a hiss of pleasure when he reached his goal.

He slipped the bruised fruit–pulp and skin–over the end and squeezed.  Grape. Pulp. Tiny seeds. He rolled it all between his fingers, abrading her flesh in the sweetest pain she’d ever felt.  Her breath came quicker, and edgy waves of pleasure cut through her bloodstream.  His tongue licked out at the inside of her mouth, then slipped away to her breast. He played  there, sucking and teasing, eating what was left of the fruit, tormenting her flesh, until she couldn’t bear it any longer.

“God…” He breathed the word like a prayer, drawing back to gaze at her.  Juice stained his cheek. His eyes were heavy-lidded and slumberous, his lips slightly swollen.  “I want to push a grape inside you and eat it from your body.”

To which she did not say, “You’re paying for the gyno visit, buster!” Nor did she say, “WHAT IN THE FUCK ARE YOU ON.”  I lost a little respect for her, personally.


One Response

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  1. The Other Jess said, on March 24, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    Everything about this blog entry is AMAZING, but the closing paragraph of your comments on that love scene had me doubled over laughing. Fellow Jess, you are the best!

    You are so right on SEP’s formula – SO right! I hadn’t pieced together just how many common elements her novels shared, but it’s so obvious to me now that you’ve laid some of them out. I really enjoy her books (I think my favorite of hers is the circus book, what’s it called, Kiss an Angel?), but I definitely think they’re best enjoyed with a bit of time between each book so that her approach to romance novels still feels fresh.

    I went on a serious SEP kick last year and loved a lot of her books, but by the end (I think the last one I read was Natural Born Charmer?) I’d kind of grown tired of her tendency to bring her heroines to rock bottom. I actually got a little weirded out by how often her heroines wind up financially strapped and having to navigate the tricky business of being with a wealthy guy (I can’t recall one of her heroes having money troubles). I actually thought this aspect made Dream a Little Dream really interesting, because she addressed it in the novel and made it a complicating factor in their relationship, but when I saw it crop up in other books (like Natural Born Charmer), it didn’t work as well for me.

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