|The Romance Reader has been reviewing Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ work for almost ten years now, and she probably has a greater percentage of 5-heart reads than any other author. Her fairytale contemporary novels that transform radically diverse hero and heroine into a happily-ever-after couple are funny, sexy and unabashedly romantic. Match Me If You Can doesn’t quite dazzle as much as my favorite SEPs, most notably It Had To Be You, but it definitely entertains.
Annabelle Granger (who has red hair – a tribute to Harry Potter’s feisty Hermione Granger?) is determined to shed her underachiever reputation by transforming her late grandmother’s small-time matchmaking business into a powerful new incarnation, Perfect for You, characterized by “personalized service for the discriminating executive.” The problem is that her only clients are the senior citizens she inherited from her grandmother. So her meeting with Heath Champion, super sports agent, is critical. If she can land high-profile Heath as a client, Perfect for You will be poised to take off.
Heath Champion, nee Campione, is a self-made man who has worked hard to leave behind his trailer park childhood. Having achieved his professional goals, he’s now ready to marry the ideal woman who is polished, beautiful, smart and sweet. He’s already working with Chicago’s top matchmaking service, but because Annabelle’s best friend Molly is the wife of Heath’s star client, Heath reluctantly agrees to let Annabelle set him up with one prospective date. Although he doesn’t find his perfect match right away, Heath realizes that he likes having Annabelle around to ease the awkwardness of the situation. He insists that she accompany him on all of his initial meetings, even the ones set up by her rival, Portia Powers.
As they spend more time together, Heath realizes how much he likes Annabelle. She makes him laugh, she isn’t intimidated by him and she gets along well with his clients. Too bad she doesn’t possess classic beauty, blue blood or any of the other qualifications that Heath thinks he wants in the future Mrs. Champion.
Match Me If You Can is a kindler, gentler SEP that is somewhat reminiscent of Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me. Unlike 2003’s Ain’t She Sweet, there’s no antipathy between the hero and heroine, and no big misunderstandings, just two people who don’t realize that they belong together. Annabelle is kind-hearted but spirited, and she comes out swinging in her first encounter with the arrogant, driven but honorable Heath. She drives a beat-up old car and has a massive inferiority complex earned from growing up in a family of successful professionals. You know that Heath is a goner, even if he has sworn to never fall in love after a dismal childhood with no mother and a drunken father. There are sparks between the two but not quite enough sizzle, and the love scenes are sadly few and far between. Fortunately there are none of those groaner scenes (Oops, I fell asleep in the wrong bed and got pregnant! Oops, I seduced the wrong guy and got pregnant!) that Phillips is famous for writing – and even more famous for being able to pull off.
One of the joys of reading an SEP novel is the opportunity to meet numerous unforgettable secondary characters. Because Heath is a sports agent, we’re treated to sightings of many of the Chicago Stars players and spouses who have inhabited the author’s previous books, primarily Kevin and Molly from This Heart of Mine, and Stars owner Phoebe Calebow and her husband Dan from It Had to Be You. In fact some of the best snappy dialogue in the book is between Phoebe and Heath, who is desperate to win over the tight-fisted sports mogul although she has never forgiven Heath for jerking her around early in his career. Entertaining new secondary characters appear as well, including the successful but miserable Portia Powers, who has a scorching but underdeveloped romance with a surprising lover. The prize for best secondary character, however, goes to young, upcoming Stars quarterback Dean Robillard. His unabashed and unapologetic hedonism is a hoot, and his unconventional relationship with Annabelle is priceless. I can’t wait to meet the heroine who takes him down a few pegs in a future SEP release.
Match Me If You Can may not make my list of top three SEP reads, but it’s better than 95% of the contemporary romance, Chick Lit and Women’s Fiction cluttering your local Borders’ bookshelves. Resist it if you can!