Where have all of the 40-year old romance heroines gone? laments TRR reviewer Lesley Dunlap. Well, if they’re smart, they’ve made the jump, along with author Catherine Todd, to the sassy side of women’s fiction. In this sub-genre, the heroines face job challenges and family issues, usually with an ex-husband lurking in the background, but they still find the right guy and some semblance of a happily-ever-after without losing their caustic, sometimes self-deprecating sense of humor. It’s kind of like Brit Chick Lit for real grownups.
Like the bumper sticker warns, life is just “one dam thing after another” for 45-year old Becky Weston. She’s shares her small La Jolla house with a moody teenaged daughter and an elderly, depressed mother, while making a valiant attempt to be a successful first-year law associate at the firm where she previously worked as a receptionist. However, she ends up watching younger, more energetic associates who are unencumbered by family responsibilities get ahead faster. Her late ex-husband’s second wife has control of the children’s trust fund and is hinting that there might not be enough money left for Becky’s son to continue attending a private university. Sounds overwhelming, doesn’t it? But Becky keeps on trudging as her sense of humor, her best friend and her former psychiatrist help to keep her aloft.
Then Becky’s law firm is contacted by a well-known physician who is revolutionizing the anti-aging industry. It turns out that the famous Dr. Bobbie Crystol is none other than Becky’s former college dorm-mate, formerly known as Barbara Collins. Bobbie insists on working with Becky, and no one else, but Becky is suspicious about her windfall. The two women weren’t best friends at college, so why is Bobbie singling her out? How legitimate are Bobbie’s services and her promise that You Don’t Have to Die? Bobbie’s appearance in Becky’s life stirs things up in more ways than one, as Becky is forced to closely examine the choices she’s made - and wonder whether her career and personal life are teetering on the verge of disaster or triumph.
Becky’s first-person narrative is delightfully upbeat, although as the novel developed even I was depressed by the stressors that kept piling up on her. It’s easy to identify with the choices she has made to handle her responsibilities as a good mother and good daughter, choices that leave little room for her own needs. But like any good escapist fiction, Becky winds up on top, and even manages to find a promising romance from an unlikely source. The novel contains some mystery elements about Bobbie Crystol’s medical practice and possible legal shenanigans, but the focus isn’t on the “whodunit” or bringing the bad guys to justice. It’s more of a personal victory for Becky as she triumphs over her adversaries and realizes that there’s still room to grow and change at age 40-something.
Todd’s novels are usually set in California, which provides the author with plenty of potential material for satire. This time it’s the natives’ obsession with trying to halt the inevitable process of aging, and the novel really hits its stride at Bobbie Crystol’s new spa, where look-alike face lift patients, botox accident victims and devotees of sheep adrenal glands all congregate together, much to Becky’s amazement. Her experience with a seaweed wrap leaves her feeling like “Marabel Morgan meets the Little Mermaid.”
Only one plot element, lifted directly from an old Fred Astaire movie (and an even older book), bothered me. Putting said idea in a modern setting was an intriguing idea, but ultimately one that served to slightly infantalize the heroine instead of making a romantic statement.
Catherine Todd wrote several well-reviewed books for Avon in 1997 but couldn’t find the right audience at the time. Sharing the same publisher as Susan Isaacs and Olivia Goldsmith should serve her well, and Exit Strategies is a good introduction to her work. If you like those authors, as well as Jane Heller, you owe it to yourself to give Todd a try. She’s less bitter than Goldsmith, a sharper author than Heller, and as for Isaacs…well, she’s right up there in her league.