When the Romance Reader staff became aware that a new Susan Elizabeth Phillips book was on the horizon, we all started begging editor Dede Anderson for the chance to review it. That should give you an idea of this contemporary romance novelist's popularity. Fortunately for me, I was the first to ask and thus the lucky reviewer. Anyone who picks up Lady Be Good will be a lucky reader as well. It's a hilarious romp and my favorite SE Phillips effort since the brilliant football epic It Had to Be You.
After the often somber Dream a Little Dream, I was glad to see Phillips return to her screwball comedy style. There are some serious parts in Lady, but the overall tone is much lighter. This time our mismatched but fated couple is Lady Emma Wells-Finch and Kenny Traveler. Lady Emma is the headmistresses of St. Gert's, a British private school for girls. She has traveled to Texas, ostensibly to engage in some historical research. Actually, she has a secret agenda: she is trying to discourage the
unwanted attention of a pompous duke by behaving scandalously. Hopefully, if news of her wild behavior reaches his ears, he will abandon his strong-armed attempts to marry her but not destroy St. Gert's in retaliation.
Kenny Traveler is a spoiled, rich golf pro who has been suspended from the PGA tour by acting commissioner Dallas Beaudine (Kenny calls him "the antichrist") for a variety of misdeeds that were only partially his fault. Beaudine's loving but meddling wife, Francesca, of Fancy Pants fame, has promised Kenny she will convince Dallas to reinstate him if Kenny will just do one tiny favor for her: escort her friend Lady Emma around while she is visiting America. Kenny reluctantly agrees, figuring all he has to
do is lay low and avoid any media attention for a while.
So there you have the delicious setup: a prissy blue blood who is determined to misbehave and a charming lady-killer who is equally determined to emulate a saint. Raised by a domineering mother and a neglectful father, Kenny is immediately repelled by Emma's bossiness. Emma, whose parents abandoned her at school while they traveled the world, believes she has to "lead the way or get trampled." It's a long, entertaining road to a well-deserved happily-ever-after for these two.
One of the things I liked most about Lady Be Good is that the tension between Kenny and Emma rarely leads to out-and-out antipathy or enmity, as in some of her earlier novels. Yes, they're at cross-purposes but for most of the novel they are intrigued by each other enough to engage in some delightful sparring. The novel's denouement is less dramatic than the football game or golf match of her other "jock" romances but it is still satisfying.
As I read Lady Be Good, I tried to analyze exactly why Susan Elizabeth Phillips is in a class of her own when it comes to contemporary romances. I've boiled it down to these ingredients:
- She utilizes flawed but sympathetic main characters, especially her heroes. It took me years after hearing raves about Fancy Pants to read it, because I couldn't imagine being interested in a book that had a golfer for a hero (I hate the sport). Boy, was I wrong. Kenny is another example of a patented Phillips hero; a lazy Texan who is so politically incorrect it is astounding. Phillips provides him with a dysfunctional family background so I could understand his initial behavior and then allows him enough character growth so that by the end
I really liked him – a significant accomplishment.
- She adds wonderfully three-dimensional secondary characters into the mix. There's an understated but enjoyable secondary romance between Kenny's sister, Torie, and a cute geek named Dexter O'Connor who has been handpicked by her father to be her third husband. Kenny's father and step-mother are also fully fleshed out, and Francesca and Dally Beaudine's son Ted makes a tantalizing appearance – one can only hope that his own story is brewing in Phillips' mind.
- She is one of the only authors who writes love scenes that I actually want to read. They're funny, sexy, and highly original. In fact, I wish there were more of them in this novel.
- It's been said ad nauseum, but she does a masterful job of making the reader simultaneously laugh and cry. A brilliant example of this occurs when Kenny enters his baby half-brother Petie in a "diaper derby" race. The humor of the race itself is only exceeded by the poignancy when Kenny realizes he is pushing the innocent baby to succeed much as his father pushed him, and that Petie needs and deserves the unconditional love that Kenny never received.
Finally, there's one other Susan Elizabeth Phillips quality that is a mixed bag: she only releases one novel per year. While that means I savor each one, it also means a long wait until the next juicy romance. If we all survive the Y2K experience, we can look forward to First Lady in 2000. I know I'll be duking it out with the rest of the TRR crew for the privilege of reviewing that one as well.