The Chick: Frances Elizabeth "Sugar Beth" Carey. Desperate for cash, when she inherits a mysterious painting from her deceased aunt, she high tails it back to her hometown of Parrish, Mississippi, where she was once Homecoming Queen.
The Rub: Unfortunately, too many people in Parrish remember her none-too-kind teenage antics and are all too willing to kick the queen now that she's down.
Dream Casting: Elizabeth Banks.
The Dude: Colin Byrne. A teenage Sugar Beth had him fired from his teaching job and deported (!) when she accused him of sexual assault. Years later, he's now a successful author who's made Parrish his home.
The Rub: Now that Sugar Beth is back, he's determined to make sure she gets the payback she deserves - but what if she's more than the spoiled daddy's girl she used to be?Dream Casting: Richard Armitage.
Sugar Beth: Hey, y'all, don't mind me. I'm just the prettiest, coolest, richest, luckiest girl in town and y'all are gonna kiss my ass for ever and ever, amen! Tee-hee!
Parrish, MI: Sure thing, Sugar Beth!
Colin: Now that Sugar Beth's back, I WILL HAVE MY REVENGE FOR BEING ACCUSED OF ASSAULT AND GETTING DEPORTED!
Winnie: I WILL HAVE MY REVENGE FOR BEING TORMENTED AND ABUSED!
Seawillows: WE WILL HAVE OUR REVENGE FOR BEING CRUELLY IGNORED BY HER RIGHT AFTER BOTH OF HER PARENTS HAD JUST DIED, HOW DARE SHE ABANDON US!
Colin: ... um, that's a little extreme.
Winnie: OMG! How dare you show kindness to a woman who did awful things as a teenager, instead of doing equally awful things back to her like the rest of us rational-minded, wealthy, professional adults! SHE'S GOT YOU UNDER HER EVIL SEX SPELL JUST LIKE MY HUSBAND!
Winnie's Husband: That's not even remotely close to true -
Winnie: STUFF IT! I'm walking out on you because I NEED A SUBPLOT.
Colin: YEAH WELL I LIKE BEING UNDER A SEX SPELL!
Sugar Beth: Awesome! I kind of like being with you too -- wait a minute! NO! YOU'VE GOT ME UNDER A MARRIAGE-AND-BABIES SPELL! HOW DARE YOU!
Colin: ...but it's a nice marriage and babies spell. Plus I'm rich and British. Really, what possible objection could you have?
Sugar Beth: Oh, alright FINE.
Romance Convention Checklist
2 Awful Childhoods
2 Very Bad Dads (both deceased)
1 Token Rebellious Half-Niece
6 Bitchy Frenemies
1 Horrendous Prank
1 Unfaithful Basset Hound
1 Very Loving Husband (Deceased)
1 Rather Unnecessary Dead Wife
The Word: After reading Lauren Myracle's mesmerizing YA novel Shine, I didn't know what I could possibly read next that could compare. I was still very much in a sort of mourning - I still thought about the characters. I still do. Seriously, read that book.
But you should also read this book. I unwittingly made the best choice possible when I decided to go with one of my most reliable contemporary romance authors, Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I picked a book from an entirely different genre and tone from my last novel. As a result, I enjoyed myself immensely.
While Shine painted a resonant and extremely unflinching portrait of hardscrabble, drug-infested small town life - I still do kind of dig the cozy small town setting in literature. I think it's best to read books from both sides of that equation because I've seen both types of towns in my province and elsewhere. I'll read Lauren Myracle and Jennifer Echols for the bad side, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Crusie and Alice Hoffman for the good.
In this case, the town is Parrish, Mississipi, and at one time, Sugar Beth Carey was its queen. Scion of the richest man in town, she was gorgeous, popular, and nigh-untouchable, but also spoiled and cruel, particularly towards Winnie Davis, the school misfit. Parrish's most open and humiliating secret, Winnie Davis was Griffin Carey's other daughter, her mother his acknowledged mistress. Griffin Carey made no secret of how he preferred this family over his legal one, and Sugar Beth dedicated her high school years to taking out all of her daddy issues on Winnie's pride and self-esteem. She also had no qualms using her daddy's status to force everyone else to dance to her tune.
However, all this comes back to bite her in the ass in the present day when Sugar Beth, thrice-married, twice-widowed, once-divorced and now flat broke, creeps back into town to look for a painting her recently-diseased Aunt Tallulah bequeathed to her. Allegedly, it's an undiscovered painting from legendary artist Lincoln Ash, who was rumoured to have been Aunt Tallulah's tragic paramour. If it's authentic, Sugar Beth will be able to sell it for enough money to settle her personal affairs for good.
No one is particularly happy to see her back in town. Certainly not Winnie Davis, who married Sugar Beth's high school sweetheart Ryan Galantine and inherited the entire Carey fortune. Now she is the wealthy, respected social leader of Parrish, and while she longs to wreak some long-overdue vengeance on her high school tormentor, she's also terrified that Sugar Beth's return will reignite the torch Ryan held for her.
Certainly not the Seawillows, the Mean Girls clique Sugar Beth created, then abandoned when she went to college, who have now reformed with Winnie Galantine as their leader.
And certainly not Colin Byrne, the ridiculously pretentious young English teacher whose career was ruined when Sugar Beth leveled false accusations of sexual assault against him (yikes!), who is now a devastatingly sexy, rich and famous author who owns Sugar Beth's childhood home.
Colin, in fact, spearheads the Kick Sugar Beth's Ass effort, since she sets up shop in the carriage house Aunt Tallulah owned next to Colin's property. However, the Sugar Beth he meets isn't the same spoiled girl he remembers: while repentant for her past misbehaviour, she's a stronger, tougher woman, and unwilling take bullshit or back down from a fight.
As you can tell, this novel has enough drama to choke a llama, and I loved every page of it.
I loved Sugar Beth. What a fabulous heroine! She knows she screwed up, she's more than willing to take her justified licks, but she refuses to be a punching bag for people who've had nothing better to do than stew over how bad high school was (*cough*WINNIE*cough*). While the novel doesn't sugarcoat what Sugar Beth did (and she truly did get away with some horrendous behaviour in high school), I sympathized with her way more than Winnie or the Seawillows, especially after a teeth-grindingly painful scene where they team up against her at a dinner party. It's easier for me to understand awful, immature and hurtful behaviour coming from a distraught 18-year-old than from a group of professional, respected 33-year-old adult women who should know better.
But, little by little, Sugar Beth soldiers on and starts to earn the grudging respect and forgiveness of those around her, starting with Colin. Their wisecracks and chemistry sizzle and spark, a perfect mixture of Colin's dry British wit and Sugar Beth's Southern self-deprecation. As well, there are subplots and secondary characters galore, excellent backstories, and a comical dog character that doesn't make me want to watch the scene of Old Yeller getting shot on Youtube.
The only slightly burnt piece on this delicious peach pie of a novel is, perhaps, Colin's sad backstory of a wife who committed suicide. It's an extremely serious subject that's insultingly treated as a token Sad Backstory that had no real, demonstrated impact on Colin's life that wasn't already explained by the other events in his past. It really didn't need to be in there, and felt tacked on.
Otherwise, though, this is a highly entertaining, dramatic and romantic read from the ever-dependable but never predictable Susan Elizabeth Phillips.