Match Me if You Can by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

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HelenKay:  Take a successful, rich, good-looking guy on a marriage quest and mix him up with a determined, "normal" woman looking to start a matchmaking business and you have the basis for Match me If You Can.  The idea that a man of these qualities would need to hire someone to find Mrs. Perfect works due to Phillips’ strong and witty writing and grounded, believable characters.

Annabelle Granger’s talented and driven family views her life as aimless and wasteful.  When she inherits her grandmother’s floundering matchmaking business and sets up residence in her grandmother’s home, Annabelle believes she’s found her calling.  She turns the antiquated Marriages by Myrna into the new Perfect For You.  To establish her business she knows she needs a big name match and the leads and notoriety such a coup would bring.  She turns to her friend (Molly from Phillips’ This Heart of Mine) who just happens to be married to the quarterback of the Chicago Stars (Phillips’ mythical football team and the source of many characters over the years) to establish contact with Heath Champion, a slick sports agent with a life plan that includes mandatory marriage to  a showcase wife by age 35.

Problem is, fast-talking, cell phone-obsessed Heath already hired a matchmaker, the uber everything, Portia of Power Matches.  Portia is stylish, lean to the point of being food-adverse, and driven in a way that can only be described as pathological.  In other words, Portia is everything Annabelle isn’t.  After much arguing, and a little begging, Heath agrees to take Annabelle on as a second matchmaker, even though he is convinced only Portia can get the job done.  Apparently it takes a chilly matchmaker to find the perfect chilly wife.

After a failed match attempt or two, Heath and Annabelle settle into a routine of mutual using.  Annabelle needs Heath to promote his business.  Heath needs Annabelle to help him find a way into the good graces of the owner of the Chicago Stars (Phoebe from It Had To Be You), a woman totally unimpressed by Heath, so that he can sign a hot new recruit who knows all about the Heath-Phoebe battle and is avoiding Heath because of the same.

Heath is convinced he needs a certain type of trophy wife.  Annabelle knows better.  So does the reader.  Through a series of wrong matches and other dating misfires, Heath’s background and true character unfolds.  The process is believable in part because the antics between Heath and Annabelle are charming and humorous.

Annabelle is a woman you know or, if you don’t already, she’s a woman you’d be happy to know.  She is funny and sweet, snappy and flawed.  She is both intelligent and attractive, without really knowing she possesses either quality.  You cheer for her even as you wince at some of her missteps.  Heath, her seeming opposite, is a perfect match.  Where she is grounded and real, he is all flash.  But, his flash is on the outside and hides a soft gooey layer underneath.

There is a strong subplot which deals with the de-thawing of Portia and her surprising relationship with Bodie, Heath’s friend and assistant.  Bodie, a former athlete, appeals to something base and instinctual in Portia.  Their romance is raw and interesting.  At times it threatens to overwhelm the main plot as you wonder what’s happening to them off stage.

Many of Phillips’ past characters make an appearance in Match Me If You Can.  Fans of the series will welcome their return.  Those new to the series will be able to follow along and may feel compelled to check out Phillips’ backlist.  In particular, Phoebe plays a central role here and her re-introduction is a reminder of Stars books past.

One flaw of Match me If You Can is the slow pacing at the beginning of the book as Phillips establishes the plot.  The cadence picks up and eventually speeds along to an happy ending, using a realistic timeframe of months, not hours or days, to unfold.   

Match me If You Can is a strong contemporary romance with flashes of poignancy and an underlying appeal thanks to the likability of the characters.  The dialog is smart and funny.  While no new ground is broken in terms of characters or plot, this warm and charming read is worth a look.

Wendy:  When Annabelle Granger inherits her grandmother’s match making service, Marriages By Myrna, she decides this will be the thing in her life that she doesn’t poison.  She changes the business’ name to Perfect For You and goes after Chicago’s answer to Jerry Maguire, Heath Champion, a.k.a. the Python.  Heath is looking for a trophy wife: a woman who will reflect where he is in life, not where he started.  He wants a well bred, well educated, beautiful woman whose ambition is to be at his beck and call.  Heath lives his life by carefully laid plans, and his most pressing plan is to be married to the “perfect” woman before he’s thirty-five.  By the time Annabelle bursts into Heath’s office he already has one matchmaker, Portia Powers of Power Matches, searching for his future wife.  Armed with only her pluck and guile, Annabelle convinces the Python to give her services a shot.  As Annabelle presents Heath with candidate after candidate, the fate of her business rests on making a successful match, yet she find things to love about him that she’d rather not share with her clients.  In between never ending calls to his stable of athletes, his attempts to end a long standing war with Stars owner Phoebe Calebow, and an endless string of first dates, Heath comes to realize that his matchmaker Annabelle, just might be the perfect match for him.

Match Me If You Can is built around the forgivable conceit that a nice-looking, rich, successful and otherwise intelligent hero would want to marry, not for love or desire, but rather to satisfy a long-ago-made-timetable.  A hero needing to marry for reasons other than finding the love of his life is an often visited and familiar construct of romance.  Phillips’ rendition of the premise takes few risks and plays within well established genre boundaries.

Annabelle is a recognizable, if not memorable, heroine.  She’s entirely loveable, yet luckless in love; reasonably intelligent, with a unique approach, yet an utter failure on every career path she chooses; distinctively attractive, yet unaware, doubtful even, of her own sexiness.  She succeeds in peaking the hero’s interests and reaching into his heart because she is endearing with glitter on her nose and knows why some people have a rather smelly reaction to asparagus.  Her presence begs the question: why must heroines stick to the surface with cute, perky, unsinkable personalities when characters of substance are truly compelling to read?

If there is an achievement in this work, it is certainly the Portia Powers character.  She is Annabelle’s competition, a business woman out to succeed, but Phillips never stoops to make her unjustifiably evil.  Rather Portia is a woman at a crossroads, unhappy with her life, desperately in need of acceptance and love, yet unsure how to love or trust herself.  In an attempt to gain the upper hand over Annabelle, Portia spies on Heath as he meets with would-be wife contenders.  She’s discovered by Heath’s right hand man, Bodie Gray, who promises his silence on her nefarious activities in exchange for a date.  The blackmail quickly turns into a need-based relationship that is far more persuasive than the main love story.  Portia and Bodie both fear the same thing:  Portia. Both also crave the same thing: love.  Portia is the darkest character in the book—but that is more a reflection on the lightness or weightlessness of the others— but she’s firmly grounded by her faults and her need for approval is relatable.  However, what makes Portia more interesting than the rest is the journey she takes; she has no easy epiphany, but rather must take a hard look at herself, one that forces her to deconstruct who she is, face the root of her unhappiness, and reach out for Bodie even though she’s still afraid.

Match Me If You Can is an evenly paced story that allows the love matches to build over months instead of asking the reader to believe in a forever based on a single day.  Phillips’ narrative is heavy on description, but a smooth cadence emerges so the read never drowns in flowery writing.  The dialog is sharp and often humorous, as this exchange between Heath and Annabelle exemplifies:

He slipped off his sunglasses.  “I miss not being outdoors more.  I grew up banging around in the woods.”

“Huntin’ and trappin’?”

“Not too much.  I never got into killing things.”

“Preferring slow torture?”

“You know me so well.”

However, the success of the storytelling is marred by the absolute familiarity of the plot and the main characters.  Though not predictable at every turn—Annabelle’s ex-fiancee is a notable surprise—too often the action and the plot points are more routine than fresh.  As when Heath realizes the woman he planned to propose to, Delaney, was ill-equipped to handle life outside a football stadium skybox, but that Annabelle can roll with the punches beautifully.  It is Heath’s turning point, one that is too easy, and lacks originality.

Match Me If You Can thrives on Phillips’ execution.  The story is light, fun, and enjoyable.  Each page is like a potato chip:  the consumption of one spurs the craving for another; but a meal it does not make.

Wendy’s response to HelenKay:  I have often heard fans of romance say that they really enjoy seeing a powerful alpha male hero brought to his knees by the heroine/his love for her; there are those that like a protracted period of groveling wherein the hero is humbled and begs for the heroine.  The black moment of Match Me If You Can certainly leaves Heath in emotional shambles and forces him to put aside everything else in his life—his career, his personal rivalries, his pride—to chase after Annabelle and win her back.  As a fan of alpha heroes, do you like/need to see the arrogant humbled, the powerful weakened?

HelenKay’s response to Wendy:  I’ve always been a fan of the bring-him-to-his-knees-but-somehow-keep-him-strong philosophy.  There is something very appealing about seeing a strong man pushed to his limits and humbled for the woman he loves.  This is a device Phillips has used in other books.  The battering of Heath’s ego works here because of the totality of his character and the reality of what a black moment this would be for a man like him.  My favorite Phillips’ black moment for a hero came in Kiss An Angel where the hero – literally – was forced to his knees for the woman he loved.  It’s a sexy, romantic notion and serves the happy/satisfying ending promise of a romance novel.  That one moment shows that male strength sometimes doesn’t have anything to do with physical abilities or controlling behavior.

Wendy’s Final Thoughts:  Match Me If You Can is a well guided tour down a familiar path.  Recommended, but suggest waiting for the paperback.   

HelenKay’s Final Thoughts:  Match Me If You Can is the perfect read for a lazy afternoon.  Recommended in hardback or paperback.

You can visit Susan Elizabeth Phillips here and buy this book here and here.