by Susan Donovan, contemporary (2006)
St Martin's Press, $6.99, ISBN 0-312-93950-7
Susan Donovan's The Kept Woman can claim to be inspired by, I don't know, Jerry Maguire or some black and white old movie but that doesn't change the fact that the plot of this story is very silly. It's a standard damsel-in-distress meets rich guy story, only this time the rich guy is a right-leaning politician hoping to be elected as the new senator of Indiana. Yup, I say right-leaning. Shocking isn't it, that a romance author actually has the guts to state the political affiliations of her main characters?
Our right-leaning hero Jack Tolliver is well-known for two things. One, he's from the very wealthy Tolliver family with the men from that family having held the seat of the Governor of Indiana in the past. Two, he's infamous for being a womanizing spoiled brat of fellow. In this story, his campaign manager and adviser Kara DeMarinis advises him to pretend-engage a woman that will capture the hearts of Middle America. In this case, the woman is Samantha "Sam" Monroe, one of the hairdressers at the hair salon Kara goes to. Sam is always in need of money - she is a single mother of three kids (an infant, a teenager, and one in between) that, among all three of them, manage to develop all the textbook Cute Tortured Kiddies syndromes one can find in the Handbook of Stereotypically Blue and Sad Kiddies. The location of her ex-husband is unknown so there's no money coming from him. Sam instead has to work her fingers to the bone while having to deal with her kids. She thinks perhaps it will be nice to be a kept woman as long as her children don't suffer from their mother's descent into skankdom. She gets her wish in the form of Jack.
The Kept Woman is a starry-eyed romance in every sense of that phrase. Sam is so special, I won't be surprised if the author admits that Sam has been touched by angels and her suffering is only a phase of martyrhood that our special heroine must undergo in order to finally become beautiful and, er, special. Sam is naturally beautiful - all you need are the money and the goodies to make her look va-va-voom. Her kids of course arouse the paternal instincts in Jack that he never knows he has. Come to think of it, the author reminds me now and then that Jack is this copycat of a Kennedy playboy scion but he doesn't behave like one at all in this story. Oh well, this is more of a wish fulfillment tale of what the author must hope to be the perfect suburban housewife fantasy than a romance story so I guess I can't really complain. I have to hand it to Ms Donovan, first she gives me a fatty-finds-love fantasy and now she offers a dowdy suburban mum done good fantasy. The RWA should seriously look into hiring Susan Donovan to conduct a workshop, perhaps Stereotyping Your Audience Is Not A Bad Thing At All Because It's Working For Me, next year.
I really like part of Sam's characterization. Ms Donovan manages to evoke Sam's frustrations with life very well and I like how Sam doesn't let the circumstances of her life break her even when she's sometimes close to giving up. However, this aspect of Sam is countered by the author having Sam behaving often in a very dim-witted manner. The more the author insists that Sam is intelligent and all, the more gullible Sam is until I begin to have a very good idea why our gullible heroine is always down on her luck. Jack is a fake playboy hero, where his playboy past is slapped on to his personality even when his behavior comes off as surprisingly constant for a playboy and he falls in love pretty easily. Because this book is a wish fulfillment fantasy of Ms Donovan for real-life suburban housewives out there, the main characters are very close to being perfect. (The reason they are not perfect is because Ms Donovan isn't above making her characters become stupid so that a plot development can take place.) But since someone in the story has to be the bad guy, the story as a result is populated by one-dimensionally nasty villains although Ms Donovan mercifully stops short of making these characters cackle and go into long exposition monologues like cartoon villains tend to do. I'm sure you'll be surprised that the jealous ex-girlfriend of the hero who's also a ho (the girlfriend, that is - heroes are exempted from being called ho's because their penises and money are necessary to save the heroines) is one of the biggest villains in this story.
To say that The Kept Woman bores me is not actually accurate. I am a cynical reader so when I spot a book that's clearly pandering to the reader in a rather insulting manner - ooh, I'm naturally a fat overweight housewife unhappy with my life so ooh, I must love the author's books, snort - I instinctively erect a mental barrier of sorts in my head as I continue reading. I don't like being condescended upon and I don't like stories that function solely to pander to some rescue fantasies which poor dysfunctional me indulge in as I struggle to exist in this blue and miserable world. The Kept Woman often panders too much to the housewife-done-good fantasy because Ms Donovan will often force a saccharine feel-good plot development onto me even if such development is ridiculous or illogical. The heroine becomes more and more like a Mary Sue character as the story progresses.
However, there are some entertaining chuckles to be had in this story. For example, I have a good laugh over the fact that we have a right-wing Daddy's boy and an overgrown playboy of a hero whose campaign hinges on deceiving his electorate about his sexual misdemeanors. Aren't these right-wing folks supposed to frown on politicians who can't keep their pants zipped up or something, if the events in the last few years are anything to go by? Then we have Jack, this Daddy's boy whom his advisers insist is a smart lad when it comes to politics, but Jack's behavior in this book doesn't reveal any of this so-called great political acumen he is supposed to have. Should I be making any parallels to some American Presidents from the past and present? But I have the best laugh at the end of the day when our hero, boxed into a corner by his rivals, announces to everyone that he lied and politics suck in a press conference. Of course, he now realizes that politics suck and people play dirty because the disgusting liberal media keep prodding and prying at his private life - oh, what a terrible thing to do to a right-wing politician! - but he nonetheless still wants to remain in the running for the seat of Governor. How amusing. And then, after the electorate has listened to Jack telling them that he's a liar who's been found out, they vote him in anyway. Richard Nixon will be very proud of Jack Tolliver.
Don't think this is a subversive liberal bash on right-wing politicians though - the undoubtedly left-leaning rivals of Jack are depicted as either crooked to the bone or, in the case of the Jealous Skank Ho, on the verge of full-blown psychosis. Maybe Ms Donovan is on the Green Party soapbox?
I don't know whether the amusing snark-worthy political set-up in The Kept Woman is intentional but it provides me the most entertainment out of the entire story. Then again, Ms Donovan has demonstrated in her previous books that sometimes she starts out writing a story with a far-fetched and often cynical premise but by the last page she will be trying very hard to force-feed an unrealistically Pollyanna-esque ending down my throat even if this ending contradicts fundamental aspects in the story. This is very obvious in her previous book and to a lesser extent in this book where the heroine and the hero make a big issue about the moralities of their deception but at the end of the day they benefit nonetheless from the deception. Therefore, it could very well be that the humorous aspects of the politics in this story are unintentional.
That's my ultimate problem with The Kept Woman: the book feels too calculated from start to finish. The constant reiterations of the heroine's beauty and virtue, the constant demonizing of the cartoon villains in the story to make the heroine and the hero come off as even more saintly, to an ending that smacks of "Yeah? We lied. But we're sorry and we're very, very special so of course you will still love us!" Mary Sue-ism... The Kept Woman panders so heavily to the rescue fantasy with its Mary Sue heroine to the point that it pushes its agenda forward at the expense of the everything else about the story. I sneer at the obvious "Look! Sam is supposed to be you, dear reader! You're supposed to be squealing with joy because Sam is so special and adorable!" agenda, I snicker at the political aspects of the story, and I find the romance very predictable and hence dull in a textbook Harlequin Presents manner.
Jack and Sam do have chemistry and some good scenes together and sometimes Sam shows signs of being a very realistic character. But the plot has too much dancing hearts, pink ponies, special little girls, and the bad boys who ultimately love these special little girls and kiss them as the rest of the world cheer and acknowledge how special these wonderful characters are. All that fluff overwhelm the characters and submerge everything good about them.
Susan Donovan is a good writer and, I believe, she is capable of creating three-dimensional realistic characters that still fit in very well with her romantic comedies. I have no idea why she seems to be turning into Catherine Anderson on me with this book but I certainly hope that this is just a short-lived phase.
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