Just the Sexiest Man Alive
by Julie James
(Sensation, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 978-0-425-22420-5
*****
I had almost given up on romantic comedies. Except for the occasional writer (Susan Elizabeth Philips being the only one who immediately comes to mind) I find myself cringing at what passes for humor these days. Even Jennifer Crusie doesn't do it for me any more. Then, I received debut author Julie James's first book to review, and hope sprung anew. Just the Sexiest Man Alive is a witty, competent, and thoroughly charming escapist fantasy.

Taylor Donovan is a hard-fighting, cool-as-ice lawyer from Chicago. She has been sent to the firm's offices in Los Angeles to head a sexual harassment suit. Success there may eventually make her partner. But as Taylor prepares to go to trial, she is asked, or rather ordered to do the firm a favor: show actor Jason Andrews, recently voted People's "Sexiest Man Alive," what it is like to be a high-powered lawyer. Taylor has no time to babysit spoilt Hollywood heartthrobs, especially when the heartthrob in question blows off their first meeting. She hopes to quickly dispense with the matter and move on to more important things.

Jason is not, however, as willing to put an end to things, especially once he sees Taylor in legal action. He is used to getting any woman he wants and can't believe this lawyer from Chicago is saying no to the Hollywood limelight, no to extra publicity, and no to him. When he senses some interest behind the persistent refusals, he decides to work on making her say yes. Pretty soon what started as a game begins to have very high stakes.

Taylor and Jason carry the book, both individually and as a couple. She looks, sounds and acts like a professional and highly ambitious woman of today, complete with a fabulous sense of humor, great girlfriends, reasonably strong self-esteem and occasional gnawing self-doubts. There is nothing coy or heart-wrenching about her refusal to dally with Jason. This makes his final victory all the sweeter.

As for Jason, well, yes, the man is somewhat arrogant and self-conceited. Who wouldn't be with his billion-dollar face? This makes it all the more delightful to watch Taylor lead him in a merry little dance. Besides, from the start there are several strong indications he is more than the sum of his white teeth, sexy physique and scandal-prone lifestyle. One of these comes in the shape of his best friend Jeremy. Loyalty to old, less successful friends is a hard quality to beat.

But even such outstanding characters would go nowhere without a familiarity with the territory, a perfect sense of timing and a wonderful way with words. James has all three. As a lawyer who spends her time between L.A. and Chicago, she obviously knows what she is talking about. True, there is a strong element of fantasy in the romance plot and in the background trial, but I found myself laughing and smiling too often to care.

Readers used to today's hotter and more explicit romances might object to the fact that Taylor and Jason have no sex until the near end. To this I would have to reply that it works very well in this story. I like steamy scenes as much as the next reader, but never did I have the sense that they were missing here. For one, sexual tension is maintained throughout. For another, the absence of any physical relationship makes the romantic gestures all the grander.

Just the Sexiest Man Alive is romantic comedy at its best: an intelligent and sassy heroine, a hero who does not balk at taking a fall, and a humorous look at life blended with a strong dose of wish-fulfillment.

-- Mary Benn


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