by Julie Ortolon, contemporary (2003)
St Martin's Press, $6.50, ISBN 0-312-98348-4
How appropriate that this book is called Lead Me On - it's an evil tease. This book takes its time to settle into its rhythm, and once it does, it's a rather pleasant if a little too sweet read. But the pleasant second half comes at a cost: the first half of the book has our heroine Allison St Claire acting like a creepy bug-eyed girl whose sexual awakening causes her to act like a creepozoidal sociopath. Have you seen the depressing movie Welcome To The Dollhouse? Take away ten years from Allison's age and she'll be that creepy bug-eyed girl in Dollhouse.
Allison runs the gift store at the bed and breakfast inn she co-owns with her brother and sister. She has the face of an angel, I'm told, but she is also shy and mousy and frigid to the point that I bet she kills puppies for fun when we're not watching her too closely. While her family tries to tackle a scheming rival from suing them out of their home and business, she gasps, stares wide-eyed, and all but hyperventilates at the sight of the new guest - Scott Lawrence, mystery writer extraordinaire.
I suspect that Julie Ortolon must be enjoying the part where Scott is not only a writer, he's a celebrity and everyone from mere plebians to TV folks trip over to fawn over him. I won't be surprised if Ms Ortolon has a few romantic suspense dreams at the back of her mind. It's a bit ridiculous to see everybody getting excited over a mere writer in their presence, not now, not at this age when authors rarely figure in the idol-worship of celebrities.
I choose to overlook Allison's ridiculous near-orgasm when Scott's agent appoints her as his go-between with Scott. She's a certified nutcase, and nutcases don't think or act like you and I.
Scott is here to get a muse and get laid. Alas, he just has to be attracted to Little Ms Fragile Porcelein Princess here. He is so hot, he catalyzes Ms Creepy Fragile Femme's sexual awakening in that she decides to toss her inhibitions, she wants to have sex with Scott NOW.
Welcome to the Ortolonian dollhouse.
Once this horribly contrived sex thing finally kicks into action, the book becomes much better, believe it or not. Scott is a consistently likable hero, from his un-PC opinions (I feel guilty about laughing at this) about lesbians (sexually frustrated man-haters who can't get laid by the Almighty Male) to his incorrigible good-natured nature. Allison, once she goes some sense rogered into her, stops being so creepy-eyed scary and turns into a pathetic damsel in distress who just wants to cook, clean, and have babies (her own words, people!). But pathetic is an easier swallow than creepy, and Scott gets to act all Daddy-loves-ya-sugar blustery and sweet on our pathetic, fragile, emotionally needy loser heroine, so I don't know. Maybe that will be a decent trade-off for some readers out there.
It's not entirely smooth sailing. For the most part, the secondary characters are just there for the sake of being there or to honor their obligatory appearances in return for their sequels. The Everybody Loves Allison and Everybody Loves Scott thing isn't romantic as much as it is as annoying as Ray Romano's face in its high sugar content. Everybody pampers Allison - no wonder she's a walking borderline infant-child stupid headcase for too long in this story. The villain's comeuppance is an anticlimax and there is an unnecessary ghost subplot that doesn't go anywhere.
The author has a way with heroes. Now if only she can cut down on her heroine's pathetic dysfunctional Daddy-figure parasitic tendencies and create a plot that doesn't center around the "I Need To Clean, Cook, And Get Pregnant To Be Feel Whole And Loved" propaganda, and maybe we'll be talking about a great book. As it is, Lead Me On shows promise in its humor and its nicely done hero, but overall, it's just an evil tease.
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