Pretend I'm Not Here
by Chris Gavaler
(Harper Torch, $6.99, NV), ISBN 0-06-000253-0
*****
Pretend I'm Not Here is my favorite beach book for the summer of 2002. This is not your mother's romantic suspense. Chris Gavaler is no Victoria Holt or Phyllis Whitney - he's more like Lisa Scottoline with a Woody Allen complex. Since I've always had a soft spot for a smart-ass, Gavaler has tremendous appeal: wickedly funny, smart and insightful, this author recognizes and appreciates the absurd in life through his characters.

Speaking of characters, Ashley Farrell is single and over thirty, with a mother who worries about her daughter's egg count and the fact that Ashley is not seeing anyone. Unfortunately, Ashley's job has turned her into a cynic when it comes to romance. Most people would envy her traveling to the Virgin Islands every other weekend to chaperone couples, winners of a TV dating game show titled “Who Wants To Be A Blind Date?”

However, Ashley knows her beautiful contestants rarely find happiness; in fact, they generally detest one another by the end of their weekend in paradise. Still, it's her job and although she doesn't really think Melissa and Randy will hit it off, she's honor bound to try and show them a good time.

Which wouldn't be a problem except that Ashley and her winners are staying in the same resort as Zelda Schilling, a.k.a. "First Lady of the Mob." Relations between Zelda and her husband are more than a little strained and the Virgin Islands are not immune from their corruption. When Ashley finds Zelda's bodyguard in floating lifeless in the bay, the police tell her to get out of town.

Ashley doesn't heed the warning. She finds herself on a roller-coaster ride of events that keep her one step out of jail and one step behind the man she ran into, literally, at the airport and tried to pick up her first night at the resort. Ashley would very much like to know whether Andrew McGuffin is a good guy or a wise guy/hit man for the mob.

Underneath Ashley's thin layer of tough cynicism beats the heart of a true romantic and a true idealist. Ashley is just tired of her life. Tired of a job that requires her to pick contestants who have good looks and little else to recommend them. Her latest visit to "Paradise" gives her the chance to change her life, be a heroine or die trying, literally.

I loved Ashley's thoughts on herself, romance and life in general. Gavaler includes some wonderful passages like the one below where Ashley is reflecting upon the differences between herself and the beautiful Melissa:

"The Cupid routine worked for people like her. She batted her petal lashes, wagged her doe-tail, and the arrows went flying. How was I supposed to compete with that? I could never look that naked. I wasn't armored; I was calloused, my heart bruised thick. A couple of seasons in Paradise will do that to a girl. Sunblock was for tourists."

I also enjoyed the chapter titles, all in the form of dating game questions. Examples include: "Would you Kill for Love and If So, Whom?" and "Would you take a Bullet for Me and If So, Where?"

Ashley's quest for truth, justice and maybe a boyfriend, while performing her chaperoning duties, is hilarious. Pretend I'm Not Here may not be everyone's cup of tea but for readers who enjoy the absurd and like a fast-paced tale of suspense this one is definitely for you.

--Judith Flavell


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