HelenKay: Trouble in High Heels highlights the fine difference between an imaginary scenario and a truly unbelievable one. The former may qualify as solid fiction if accompanied by strong writing, fully developed characters and a unique voice. But combine that questionable plot with flat characters and the only thing the reader gets is a long, dull read.
Brandi Michaels is fresh out of an impressive law school and newly relocated from Nashville to Chicago when her childish fiancée – Alan and the reason for her move – calls to say the engagement is over since he married his pregnant girlfriend in Las Vegas. As with all childish former fiancées, Alan blames Brandi for his inability to be faithful. Alan spends very little additional time in the spotlight, which is a very good thing.
To exact a little revenge and boost her self-esteem, Brandi pawns her engagement ring and overindulges in a trip filled with primping and shopping. The final part of her vengeance plan includes attendance at a party followed by a one-night stand with a stranger. After her final hoorah, she’s scheduled for her first day of work at the prestigious law firm of McGrath and Lindoberth. The McGrath of the firm being family friend “Uncle Charles” and the partygiver.
Brandi finds her bed partner as planned – Roberto Bartolini. The wealthy Italian Count proves to be the perfect antidote to a broken engagement. Almost immediately Brandi appears more smitten with Roberto than she ever was with Alan. Until she arrives at her first day of work late thanks to a break-in at her condo and finds out about the “real” Roberto Bartolini.
Roberto is a client of the firm as well as an accused jewel thief and notorious international playboy. Naturally, being a brand new lawyer and this being her first day at work, Brandi is assigned to accompany big client Roberto to the courthouse for a meeting. Not one of the law partners. Not a seasoned attorney. Not even someone who knows about Roberto’s case. No, the firm sends the beautiful young associate with this high-visibility client.
This initial plot point, like many others in Trouble in High Heels, clearly is designed as a means of throwing Brandi and Roberto together. The move is obvious and heavy handed. The scenario also defies common sense. If this were the only misstep in reality, overlooking it might be possible. Unfortunately, this is just the first in a series of unbelievable plot points.
Despite all rules prohibiting ex parte (one party) communication with judges, Roberto is called in by the judge for a chat. In other words, the defendant in a criminal case is asked by the judge scheduled to hear the case to have a talk, without the prosecutor present (the other side), so the presiding judge can assess the defendant independent of the trial. And Roberto’s lawyers find this usual enough to send a novice along. Not even legal proceedings portrayed on television shows and in movies try to sell such a ridiculous idea.
Next, Roberto picks a fight with the presiding judge during this illegal and unethical meeting and ends up being placed in Brandi’s personal custody pending trial. Meaning Roberto and Brandi must be together day and night until the trial starts. Again, the premise is both contrived and obvious. Additional points such as Roberto’s role in the theft of the Romanov Blaze, a rare and precious gem, and the dueling of rival jewel thieves carry the same contrived feel.
The dubious plot colors every other aspect of Trouble in High Heels. Had the characters risen above stereotype, had either Brandi or Roberto managed more than one dimension, had the romance been organic rather than manipulated, had the glimpses into Roberto’s motivation and Brandi’s charm been more than brief, then the lapse in plot may have been an annoyance only. Instead, the shallow treatment of Brandi and Roberto, despite their intriguing backstories, leads to a flat affect and general failure to capitalize on sparks generated by their initial meeting.
Wendy: The trouble with saddling a work of fiction with the word trouble in the title is that it’s an open invitation for anyone to come along and say: the trouble with Trouble is… When the work in question is a collection of familiar plot points that have worked to better effect for other writers, alongside characters that feel phoned in, as opposed to people who live off the page, well then, you really have trouble. In this case, the trouble is Christina Dodd’s Trouble in High Heels.
The greatest offense Trouble in High Heels makes is that it is neither noteworthy for being good, nor contempt-worthy for being bad. It is fiction that exists in the most dangerous middle ground possible: it’s tedious. It doesn’t compel the reader along and turn pages of its own accord, nor does it deserve to be thrown against a wall in frustration. Instead, the story could be laid down at any point in the story and never returned to.
It never feels absolutely necessary to find out what happens to the hero and heroine of Trouble in High Heels, to see how their story resolves, because these characters are already well known to romance readers. Their story has already played out to a satisfactory conclusion hundreds of times in other books. Brandi Michaels is a stock romance heroine. She’s freshly graduated from Vanderbilt Law, but harbors fears about her intelligence and a need to continually prove herself. When Brandi’s fiancé calls to say he’s just married his other girlfriend – his other pregnant girlfriend – Brandi makes the clichéd decision to pawn her engagement ring (the one her suddenly unlikable and completely classless ex-fiancé wants back) and use the money to pamper herself with spa treatments, a new dress, and a night of passion with a man she intends to never see again. Brandi doesn’t shed tears over the fact that her life is newly upended or that she moved to cold and scary Chicago just to be with her fiancé. No, she plans to hunt for a one night stand at a party thrown by the senior partner of the prestigious law firm that just hired her.
It goes without saying that the man the planets aligned for and deliver to the senior partner’s party — and at Brandi’s feet — is someone Brandi will see well beyond their agreed upon one night of sex. Roberto Bartolini is mostly an Italian Count, and partly a street thug, and perhaps a jewel thief, and sometimes an international playboy, and, when otherwise not engaged, the CEO of his own multi-national company. His inclusion is thought provoking for Dodd’s decision to make him all those things, if nothing else. Roberto isn’t a character seen elsewhere so much as he is pieces of many characters seen in many other works.
Roberto and Brandi’s meeting and coming together is pivotal to the balance of the story. From their time together the reader needs to be convinced that this couple – though at this point they’re not technically together – will hang together for whatever Dodd later throws at them. Unfortunately their night of ecstasy is oddly passionless, conveyed without detail or enthusiasm. Brandi is emotionally vacant and Roberto never quite solidifies as a character.
If this night were to be allowed to its natural conclusion, Roberto and Brandi’s morning after conversation would likely be: thanks, see ya round. But this couple has another two hundred and eighty pages to go. Dodd fills those pages with convenience and coincidence. Brandi’s firm just happens to represent Roberto and Brandi just happens to get stuck escorting Roberto to meet the judge who will preside over Roberto’s jewel thieving trial and the judge just happens to remand Roberto to Brandi’s lawyerly custody.
What remains then amounts to Dodd winking at her readers as Brandi wonders if Roberto is a jewel thief and if (or how) he’ll steal the Romanov Blaze (a massive museum gem). Is Roberto is jewel thief? Could he, in addition to being a Count, a playboy and a CEO, also be a criminal? Since this story has been told before, the guesses can be limited to 1) Roberto has been framed, 2) Roberto was stealing back what was stolen from him, or 3) Roberto is, in addition to being a Count, etc, is also in law enforcement. Any one will do; it honestly doesn’t matter.
The trouble with Trouble in High Heels isn’t simply that Dodd mixed together a story with stock characters (plenty of romances succeed on that formula). The problem here is that Dodd didn’t do anything to make the familiar plot elements or characters her own. The offering manages, within its three hundred and eighty pages, to cobble together a story that is wholly predictable and crafted with such little passion and flare as to be entirely flat.
HelenKay’s Question: Some romance novels touch on the idea of the hero having a shady past. Others toy with the is-he-good-or-is-he-bad question usually resolving the battle by showing that the hero only posed as a bad guy to catch the real bad guy. So, what if the hero was more than a reformed bad boy or a guy pretending to be bad? If the male lead has been to prison for a crime he did commit or is a jewel thief or some sort of criminal, can he be a romantic hero? Ignoring Robin Hood and vampires who kill to survive for a second, can you think of a recent historical or contemporary romance novel where this sort of hero set-up worked for you as a reader?
Wendy’s Response: I think I would have first needed to read a romance where the hero went to prison for a crime he actually committed, one that wasn’t instantly redeemable, like: killing his step-father because the man beat the hero’s mother and younger brother. Romances like that are likely out there (and our readers will likely take this opportunity to tell me what they are), but generally heroes, and heroines, are rarely in need of true redemption because romance authors water down misdeeds to make characters palatable to readers. And that’s too bad too. Think of how interesting a plot involving a hero who’d been to prison for vehicular manslaughter, while under the influence, would be. The scenario is more likely than being a jewel thief (a construct I’d like to see buried and never revisited) and the resulting strife and conflict would be endless. But, alas…
HelenKay’s Final Thoughts: A disappointing contemporary tale that feels both dated and unbelievable.
You can visit Christina Dodd here and buy this book here or here.