Bare Necessity by Carole Matthews
(Avon, $13.95, PG) ISBN 0-06-053214-9
Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.

I’m probably one of the few American females who didn’t like the movie Sleepless in Seattle. I just didn’t see what was so dreamy about Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan wistfully staring into space, almost-but-not-quite meeting each other, and finally connecting in the film’s final frames. Yeah, yeah, yeah, they’re soul mates, I get it. But what about a relationship? Working through challenges and hurdles and then finding the happily ever after? To me, that’s much more romantic. I had the same reaction to British author Carole Matthews’ latest release, Bare Necessity. The hero and heroine are obviously meant for each other, but after a series of near misses, they finally come face to face on the very last page. The rest of the novel is frustrating and silly, resting on a very shaky premise. Matthews’ previous novel, For Better, For Worse, was a “Reading With [Kelly] Ripa” book club selection, so this one will probably be successful too, but there are much better examples of Brit Chick Lit available these days.

Life couldn’t get much worse for Emily Miller. Her boyfriend Declan, whose Internet-based businesses are all failing, has just posted a racy picture of her online in a desperate attempt to attract more traffic. She’s forced to move in with her best friend Cara when she learns that the sleazy Declan has squandered their money and lost their apartment as well. Emily’s “saucy Santa” picture captures the media’s attention and she is fired from her job as a teacher because of the front page coverage. How can she possibly turn her life around? She can listen to Cara, a flaky news reporter who thinks feng shui and magic spells can help. Or she can take the advice of the publicist who calls during the media frenzy, offering to make her a wealthy woman if she capitalizes on her 15 minutes of fame - by posing in the nude again, this time on her own terms.

Meanwhile, Cara’s co-worker, Adam, is having his own problems. He’s disillusioned with his job as a news photographer and feels he should be doing something more meaningful with his life. At the same time, he’s trying to find a job with more regular hours so he can gain custody of his 12-year-old son, Josh, whose mother is threatening to move to Australia. He wants someone special in his life, and starts to give Cara speculative looks, but feels awkward with her. If only he could find that one woman who “makes his heart skip several beats.” But she may be closer than he realizes.

Maybe things are different in England, but the whole idea of Emily’s life crashing down around her because of one racy picture on the Internet just didn’t make sense. With numerous celebrities bragging about their nude pictures, it’s hard to believe that one photo of a schoolteacher displaying some naughty bits would cause such a stir. I could have lived with the flimsy plot, however, if the characters were worth the effort, but for the most part they were not. Emily’s chief attraction seems to be a healthy bra size. She reacts too passively to the scandal surrounding her online revelation, although I did like the way she stood up to the devious Declan when he came crawling back to her.

Adam is a much more sympathetic character. The relationship with his adolescent son is realistically poignant, and I felt his pain at the prospect of being half a world away from him if his ex-wife follows through with her plan. However, for all of his concern that his job isn’t meaningful, the career choice he makes by the end of the novel hardly seems a step in the right direction.

Matthews completely wimps out with the alleged romance between Emily and Adam. They meet briefly halfway through the novel, although neither knows the other’s identity. The author then spends the rest of the story teasing the reader with several near misses, only to finally put the couple together at the very end. The reader is supposed to assume that they’re soul mates because the one time they see each other they both feel like they’ve been hit by a thunderbolt. That’s not true love, that’s lust. And it’s a cop-out to skip all of the relationship building that constitutes a real romance - talking to each other, working through problems - just to slap a happily-ever-after on the final page.

I will admit I chuckled a few times at some of the novel’s more outrageous secondary characters, especially Cara and Adam’s co-worker Chris, a thoroughly unapologetic sex maniac. But as I read most of the novel, my main reaction was frustration and exasperation. Bare Necessity should not be a necessity for your reading pile.

--Susan Scribner

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