I’m a huge SEP fan and have been for years. YEARS. I read my first one when I was school all those years ago... she’s consistently smart, funny and her characters are alive. Larger than life, brash, unrepentantly outrageous.
So why did I put this book off for an entire year?
Her last two left me feeling a little flat. Writers evolve, grow in confidence and skill, become more serious. In her last couple of books, I think SEP toned down the high camp of her earlier novels, giving her characters more maturity and self-awareness. Which is fine but, necessarily, some of the dramatic tension, the highs and lows of a roller-coaster romance are also missing. In its place was more of the earnestness, the self-growth, the finding-yourself-in-your-lowest-moment stuff that is always central to an SEP novel. Whilst enjoyable, I was left feeling a little unsatisfied.
So does this latest - a return to her popular Chicago Stars series - turn things around?
Annabelle Granger is a professional matchmaker. Her small struggling company - Perfect for You - desperately needs business and that’s where Heath Champion(!) comes in. Heath is a very successful sports agent and the hottest bachelor in town. Wealthy, driven and gorgeous Heath is Annabelle’s polar opposite. For - of course - Annabelle is a bit of a flake. Her life is as unruly and out of control as her wild red hair. She is the disappointment of her uber-successful family, the perpetual failure. What saves Annabelle from annoying the hell out of me is her very droll sense of humour and her amusing sparring bouts with Heath.
Annabelle manages to (very cleverly) trick Heath into hiring her services. Heath’s looking for Mrs Champion - refined, beautiful, upper class, the very antidote to his humble beginnings - and Annabelle brings him fresh candidates to consider. Heath insists that Annabelle sit through every introduction and thus their odd, quirky relationship begins. Indeed, thinks Heath, If Annabelle were a few inches taller, a hell of a lot more sophisticated, better organised, less bossy and more inclined to worship at his feet, she’d have made a perfect wife.
The good: My favourite romances are the ones where I don’t want the verbal foreplay to end. When the flirting, bickering, falling-in-love-and-not-knowing goes on and on and I just love it. This was perfect. Heath and Annabelle had a great, fizzing chemistry, sparkling repartee and the whole friends to something more was handled with just the right touch. And how great was it that they were friends first? (I’m reading some Shannon McKenna short stories at the moment and I think my eyes were starting to bleed...) Pretty damn great. These two, the reader thinks, fit in more ways than good old sexual compatibility.
The bad. Well, I would say this begins when Heath and Annabelle start to get serious about their feelings. From this point on, it’s all self-doubt and denial and angst. As per practically every SEP book in existence, the heroine can’t believe that the hero loves her and throws his declaration back in his face (how many times does SEP use this device? How many times has the hero publicly declared himself, only to be rejected and humiliated?) There is that moment of self-realisation when the heroine thinks “I DESERVE to be LOVED” and, of course, there is much abasement of the hero before she gets that yes - YES - he really, really loves her as she so rightly DESERVES to be LOVED.
Unh. After the fizz and crackle of the first two thirds of the book, this was a real downer.
The other thing that brought me down were all the visitors from previous Chicago Stars novels. This is such a tired device, the author really milking her franchise - buy the other books, buy the other books! At one point, as the women approach their men, Phoebe murmurs “Welcome to the Garden of the Gods, ladies.”
I mean, come on! The premise - that footballers are smart, articulate, romance novel material - is shaky enough to begin with. When they stand together - Gods among men - I felt my credulity stretched beyond repair.
The secondary romance - featuring a rival matchmaker and Heath’s friend - was tacked on and slightly jarring even though there is a very funny bit at the end that had me snorting to myself.
Overall, a solid B.