Man Trouble by Melanie Craft
(Warner, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-446-61284-7
*****
I picked up Melanie Craft’s Man Trouble on a Friday before a busy weekend, with a non-stop To Do list to get through before the first house guest (aged 14) arrived Saturday morning. I was only going to read for fifteen minutes while I iced my sore knee. When I realized my knee was completely numb and the fifteen minutes had lengthened into 45, I knew I was in Big Trouble. The last thing I needed was a novel I couldn’t put down…but that’s exactly what I had.

Molly Shaw has a double life. Publicly she is Molly Shaw, a junior professor of history at Belden College in Wisconsin, and working toward tenure. Privately…very privately…she is Sandra St. Claire, best-selling author of Pirate Gold, a novel in the genre known as ‘bodice-ripper’. Molly knows that academia in general disdains romance novels and that - among all colleges and universities - Belden College is especially conservative intellectually. If she is found out, Molly’s quest for tenure will be stymied, at best. Secrecy is imperative.

Hotel tycoon Jake Berenger is equally publicity-shy, although you might not guess it if you read People magazine and the social pages of the New York Times. His picture is everywhere, escorting a parade of models and starlets. He has never given one interview, however, so no one guesses that his motive for dating is publicity for his hotel chain. Mostly the women he dates have similar motives and harbor no hard feelings when he moves on, but Skye Elliot is the exception. Angry at being dumped, she is revenging herself by portraying Jake as unstable and unfit to run a major corporation. Jake’s advisors, including his mother, tell him it’s time to get his side of the story out.

Unbeknownst to Jake, Molly Shaw’s friend since high school, Carter McKee, would be only too happy to help him. Carter wants to write a book about Jake Berenger, and he thinks Molly Shaw, in her persona as Sandra St. Claire, is just the ticket. Carter has researched Jake thoroughly, and he knows exactly what type of woman Jake goes for. Carter wants to dress Molly up in a blonde wig and tight clothes, augment her chest, and sic her on Jake at his Caribbean resort where he spends most of his time. Jake will be unable to resist Sandra, and Sandra will pitch Carter’s book to Jake. Molly is naturally dubious, but a little emotional blackmail, combined with the lure of a chance to leave her staid life behind for a little while, and Molly’s on board.

A preposterous set-up? Sure. Unlikely to work as planned? Of course. Fun anyhow? You betcha. Ms. Craft manages to make wilder and wilder developments perfectly logical and unavoidable, while keeping the reader laughing with her zingers. She is one funny writer, as the following passage should illustrate. Molly has just arrived in Jake’s Gold Bay resort but has not yet been transformed into Sandra:

Jake strolled up the beach, a little closer to the cottage, looking curiously to see if Ingrid and Rama were there. But he saw only a smallish mousy-haired woman, sitting in a chair on the deck, wrapped in one of the thick white terry-cloth Gold Bay bathrobes. The bulky robe was too large for her, and made her look as if she were being eaten by a polar bear.

Besides being funny, look at what else Craft does with that passage. She tells us quite a lot about Molly’s appearance, and she gives the first hint of a sub-plot involving Ingrid and Rama (a.k.a. Rama Guru and referred to as Mr. Guru by a number of characters).

In fact, I must recommend that you read Man Trouble in isolation; otherwise you may be overwhelmed by the urge to read sentences, paragraphs, and even chapters aloud to your Significant Others:

“(Elaine) had also guided Molly toward a black push-up bra that Molly wanted to hand over to the Belden Physics department, because it seemed to create matter where there was none,” or

“In the novels (Molly had) read, and even in the book she’d written, characters were always seeing the truth in each other’s eyes, as if there were sub-titles scrolling across their irises.”

Let me hasten to reassure you: I haven’t excerpted every witty line, leaving you nothing to look forward to. Gems like these occur every couple of pages and kept me laughing, often out loud. In fact, for this review I wanted to search through the book, looking for the reason Jake was publicity-shy, and dared not. I’d have ended up reading the whole darned book again, but that To Do list of mine has only gotten longer since Friday. I couldn’t take the chance.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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