by Hailey North, contemporary (2004)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-058230-8
Hailey North returns to her smalltown Doolittle in Love: Undercover for more adventures of the oh-so-wacky but so-predictable-too kind. The story is cobbled together from tried-and-true stereotypes of the smalltown romance formula so it's a very predictable affair.
The heroine Jenifer (one N) Janey Wright is the single mother of college-aged twins. She is also the town librarian, because "town librarian" is a nicer phrase than "horny soccer mom" and it won't offend feminist readers too. And horny is what Jenifer is - she hasn't had a man in years and the new hunk in town, Eric Hamilton, is just what she needs to fix the problem in her social life. She has plenty of time to kill as she is trying to adjust to life without having her kids around. But when she finally decides to make the move, he doesn't want to do the moves! Grrrr. Meanwhile, Eric isn't who he seems to be. He is an undercover cop posing as an "investor" to infiltrate a counterfeit ring. Jenifer is a suspect because she's been seen with the men implicated as the ringleaders. Eric decides that he'll have to seduce her if he has to in order to gain Very Important Information for Greater Good Everywhere, but he is soon running scared when he realizes that he's more attracted to Jenifer than he'd initially expected.
The horny librarian wanting to be bad, the undercover lonely cop who just wants a family, the heroine's ready-made family, the heroine's lousy social life past where she was impregnated by a jerk and then dumped subsequently, the heroine's grouchy "Uncle Pete" who's also the sheriff, her sequel-friendly uniformed brothers, predictably wacky smalltown people... the plot and cast of Love: Undercover is like a roster call for every cliché ever created and incorporated into the smalltown contemporary romance.
But while this book won't be in danger of being mistaken as an innovative story in any way, there are some nice small touches to make the story a little spry and fresh, sort of like some menthol sprinkles on a stale slice of bread to hide the moldy taste. The chemistry between Eric and Jenifer is especially the best thing about this story, with Jenifer's amusement of the absurd predicaments she's stuck in with Eric giving it a much-needed sense of self-awareness. Jenifer is also smart enough to consider whether her attraction to Eric as a result of his sad lonely self arousing in her the instinct to mother and nurture especially now that her twins are off to college. She has devoted her life to taking care of Adam and Autumn and is only now realizing how little of her life that she can rightfully call her own. Eric is the first step in her attempts to reclaim a little bit of her life as her own, and in a way, I can understand that better than a typical "frigid librarian wanting to be bad, gimme, gimme, gimme" heroine of this kind. Jenifer is a stereotype, but there is a little depth in her that makes her stand out and even be likable.
On the other hand, Eric is a more straightforward cookie-cutter Undercover Sad Hero stereotype. Sigh. The half-baked attempt at suspense late in the story is even more... sigh. Big sigh.
The secondary characters are predictable, but there are some attempts from the author to inject something different too, such as a cute gender reversal of the stereotypes where Jenifer's son is in college under a "geek" scholarship (read: academic award) while her daughter is a tomboy whose athletics achievements earn her a college scholarship. I also like how there is no overt big city or career women bashing here, just happy people in a smalltown being happy, barring one or two bad seeds of course. Sometimes Doolittle, Arkansas can get too sweet for me, but Love: Undercover, being too predictable aside, is a nice and pleasant story with characters that, while familiar, often sparkle a little with some nuances that make them come off as a little different at the same time. Too much of a same thing can't be good, but Hailey North produces an effective case in Love: Undercover to challenge that assumption.
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