He Loves Lucy

Knock Me Off My Feet

Public Displays of Affection

Take a Chance on Me

The Kept Woman
by Susan Donovan
(St. Martin’s; $6.99; PG-13) ISBN 0-312-93950-7
A ridiculous premise, a cast of clichéd romance characters and a predictable plot can’t turn this into a bad book, no matter how hard they try.

Jack Tolliver is a handsome, wealthy bachelor who turned to the family business – politics – when his pro football career (he was a quarterback, naturally) was ended by a devastating knee injury. After a term as lieutenant governor of Indiana, his bid for congress was also cut short, this time by a self-inflicted wound; a microphone caught the inveterate playboy making a highly inappropriate remark about a woman’s rear end.

Now, at age 38, Jack is running for the Senate, but voters “can’t get over” his reputation as a player. (Romance writers cling to these quaint notions regarding public response to ‘scandalous’ behavior, which takes a lot of determination in the post-Clinton era.) Kara, Jack’s campaign manager, has decided that the only way to rehabilitate his image is a fake six-month engagement to a ‘normal’ woman. Someone who will help convince voters that he’s changed and matured enough to settle down and be a good boy.

Enter Samantha Monroe, hardworking, responsible, middle-class divorcée struggling to make ends meet since her husband decided he was gay and abandoned the family when Sam was pregnant with their third child. Kara became friends with Sam, a hairstylist who works at the salon where Kara gets her hair done, and the “fake fiancée” scenario came to her one night when, after one too many margaritas, Sam mumbled something about looking for a sugar daddy.

Although everyone agrees that secrecy is key to the success of this little scheme, Kara presents the idea to Sam in front of her big-mouthed friend, Monté, and Sam promptly informs her children (Lily, 14; Greg, 13; and Dakota, 3), because I guess it’s okay to lie to the public, but not to your kids.

And, of course, lurking in the background is a vicious reporter whom Jack once dated and humiliated, who isn’t buying into this heartwarming little scenario one little bit and is just waiting for one of the principals to slip up so she can eviscerate Jack and have her revenge.

The scenario is an amazing mixture of the ridiculous and the clichéd. The hero, in spite of being young, studly and rich, has to pay a stranger to pretend to be engaged to him. In fact, he’s paying her so much money that at the end of six months she’ll be able afford private school for her kids, send them to the most prestigious colleges in the country, buy a house, and hire a nanny for Dakota when she goes back to work. The 36-year-old heroine, despite working her fingers to the bone for fourteen years, looks like a beautiful 29-year-old with just the merest swipe of lip gloss, and, after bearing and raising three children (with no time for the gym) has a great body and a firm little butt.

We’ve also got the best friend with borderline Tourette’s (you know, the one who never lets a single embarrassing or inappropriate thought go unexpressed) and so on.

In spite of all that, the author actually manages to make these characters likable, which is no small feat. Even though all this cash is changing hands (which could certainly make a sexual relationship seem pretty icky) I believed that Jack really liked Sam. And, although it wasn’t exactly a surprise, I also bought his transition from shallow poser to caring family guy – maybe because he’s not an overly complicated guy. I also enjoyed Sam and Jack’s sexual heat, although I could have done with fewer bulletins about what was happening in the crotch of Sam’s panties.

Sam, happily, lost her early self-righteous attitude (it is, after all, hard to take the high road and the money) and, because she was a genuine, down-to-earth person, it was possible to believe that an honest relationship might actually develop from such mendacious beginnings. Even if she does stumble (right on schedule) into boneheaded decision territory at the end.

In short, this would be good summer reading for those of you who want a total escape from anything resembling reality.

-- Judi McKee

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