Sometimes fate plays a hand in the review process, sometimes it’s just a really fat feline. A few weeks ago, my cat decided to clean my bookshelves, thinking if she could knock enough stuff to the floor, she’d be able to squeeze into a space the size of a kitten. Needless to say, she grew bored with her project around the time that she’d cleared a good chunk of one shelf, and I was left to pick up her mess (yeah, guess who’s in charge at my house). As with all my house-cleaning attempts, one moment I was gung-ho, the next I was glancing at Heather MacAllister’s Temptation How To Be The Perfect Girlfriend.
I’m a lot like my cat, but not in a good way.
Sara Lipton is a payroll assistant on the fast track to nowhere, especially on the romance front. After a very promising Friday night with a co-worker, she gets a “Sorry, who are you?” rejection by email the next Tuesday. Clearly she needs to brush up on her interpersonal skills. Her best friends — one a man-eater, the other planning her society wedding — agree that Sara needs to find a better class of man. Sara, meanwhile, finds her prototype in the person of Simon Northrup, who, despite his rather odd proclivity for fixing paper jams, is so far out of her league, he’s on another planet.
Simon, who has come to Texas to fulfill a promise to his dying father, has his hands full with women, and not just the ones falling at his feet. He’s trying to build a relationship with his resentful young half-sister — a process made overly complicated by the fact that her mother was Simon’s college girlfriend. Right up until the point where she married his wealthy father. Plus he’s juggling a lot of heavy-duty business of some sort. Romance is off the table.
Good category romance rests entirely in the execution. We all know where this story is going. A key element here is characterization. Sara is sweet — right off the bat, she’s helping Simon get his mind around the concept of teenaged girls — but she’s not saccharine. She has an edge that is often missing in category heroines. The office rumor mill is buzzing about Simon’s apparent girlfriend with a child, and when Sarah meets his “stepmother”, her first thought is to call a girlfriend to spread some seriously juicy gossip (c’mon, you would, too). And when it becomes apparent that Joanna isn’t over her college romance (despite the marriage and child), Sara doesn’t play goody two-shoes.
Of course, she sees the writing on Simon’s wall, realizing that he’s definitely going to be a good time, but he’s not marrying material. Too much baggage, and Sara’s done with baggage. Despite her strong attraction, she plugs away at the original plan: meeting eligible men who don’t have stepmother issues. She’s willing to practice on him, but that’s as far as it goes.
MacAllister struggles a bit with Simon, mostly I think because she’s given him a bit too much to handle in such a short book. Problems at work, problems with the sister, problems with the stepmother, unresolved relationship with now-dead father, attraction with cute payroll person, and even, yes, the weird relationship he has with an aged copy machine. This is a lot for one character, and by spending far too much time in Sara’s point-of-view, MacAllister leaves her hero less well-rounded than I would like. She does make it clear that Simon is trainable and he’s certainly charming. And definitely a less-that-perfect hero — he makes wrong choices and bad decisions, as anyone in his position would. His misguided deference to the needs of his sister create the main conflict between Simon and Sara as the story moves forward.
When she’s writing from Sara’s perspective, MacAllister does a fine job of drawing a character who wants a man — something that should be relatively simple to achieve, but we all know a good relationship is extremely hard to find. Sara’s friends both add to and detract from the story. I get the impression that Hayden, the man-eater, was supposed to be a stronger character than she ended up being, while Missy, the embodiment of the up-and-coming country club wife, came off as more nuanced. Hayden’s problem was that her sexually aggressive nature came off as one-note, even when she gets her comeuppance.
Category romance is, by definition, compact. The writing must be tight, the story must be properly sized, and the characters must work extra hard to pop off the page. Good category authors know this is a difficult challenge. Heather MacAllister is a good category author. She takes a stock story and makes it fresh and interesting. Had Sara been too nice or Simon too martyred, I would have given up and started cleaning again. I really hate cleaning. Luckily I found a perfect way to waste a few hours and reminder of why Harlequin made a huge mistake when they abandoned the heart and soul of Temptation — the sexual themes of Blaze are fine for what they are, but Temptations always more than one-note novels, as this one proves.