When a secondary character is so compelling that he screams “Hurry up with my sequel!” it’s almost inevitable that he’ll lose some of that luster when he finally gets his starring role. Davy Dempsey is no exception. I know I wasn’t the only one sighing over the smooth-as-silk bad boy in Welcome To Temptation, and he’s very appealing here. But in the long haul he never quite hits his previous high-water marks – never quite as devilish, ruthless, or cool. Faking It is a highly entertaining read that is more fun than Fast Women and features some of Crusie’s best plotting ever. But while the characters are endearing, they’re all a bit too artificial to truly love.
Tilda Goodnight’s past has caught up with her. As a teenager, she forged some paintings for the family art gallery, and now the last of them has accidentally been sold. Exposure could land Tilda in jail for fraud and put her feckless extended family out on the streets. Since the unscrupulous buyer (Clea from Temptation) won’t return her painting, Tilda breaks in to retrieve it on the same night that Davy Dempsey has arrived to steal his money back from his ex-girlfriend. Davy is the product of generations of con artists, but of late he’s trying to go legit.
When the initial housebreaking is unsuccessful, Davy insinuates himself into Tilda’s home by renting a room from her family. There he meets the whole wacky household: Tilda’s bored and depressed mother, her sister Eve, an elementary teacher who blows off steam by dressing up as a sexual tigress and prowling her gay ex-husband’s nightclub, Eve’s teenage daughter, and her ex-husband and his life partner. Though initially wary, Davy and Tilda fall in bed together while scheming towards their goals and protecting their secrets.
Oh, there’s a lot to like here. Tilda and Davy have to overcome some genuine sexual dysfunction, and it takes a few experiments before they get it right. Watching them team up to con a few marks is great fun, as is Eve’s hilariously blasé acceptance of her dangerously sexy alter ego. The forced movie quotes that were the weakest point of Temptation (honestly: the bat from Anastasia?) are now woven in seamlessly – much more apropos, much more the sort of lines that real movie buffs remember. The stuff on fakes, forgeries, and folk art is terrific, including such Outsider Art inside jokes as a reference to Howard Finster. At their best Tilda seems passionate and Davy seems dangerous, and the twists as they reveal their secrets are some of the best plotting of Crusie’s career. (The plot involving Clea, not so much.)
The problem with judging a book by an author who’s written fabulously in the past is judging her against the marketplace as opposed to judging her against herself. I’ve been a huge Crusie fan, so you’ll have to read my criticisms knowing that while on its own, the book is excellent, Crusie is capable of more. With that in mind, and knowing that Crusie has written a terrifically plotted book, the characters feel…well…fake. In a recent review I wished that Patricia Gaffney (to whom Faking It is dedicated) would take a page from Crusie and tap deeper into her innate humor. Now I also wish that Jennifer Crusie would concentrate on making her characters as rich as Gaffney’s. As it is, the wacky family comes from the Jayne Ann Krentz school: cutesy at the expense of emotional reality.
One scene in particular was the deciding factor against my awarding a DIK. Davy and Tilda have known each other two days and slept together once, disastrously. Davy’s best friend shows up and moves into his room, the last one available. What’s a man to do? Why, move into Tilda’s bed, of course. Since Tilda doesn’t want to have sex again, they lie awake and bicker platonically for several nights.
To me, that’s just all kinds of wrong. At that point in the story, they seem ready for the one-night-stand-then-guilt phase. But they’re nowhere close to the emotional intimacy that Davy’s actions presume. The platonic bickering actually creeped me out. I don’t care how old they are, I don’t care how enlightened they feel about sex (which Tilda, in fact, does not take casually.) Once they’ve done it, they can’t unring that bell. It’s not that the sex or the platonic bundling is morally wrong; it’s that what’s depicted is emotionally impossible. This is an ongoing problem: in an effort to prove how hip and counterculture they all are, everyone from the foxy grandma to the worldly teen takes every sexual development with implacable calm. It’s facile and plastic, and annoying as hell.
Like most of Crusie’s recent work, Faking It has a Big Idea at its core (a more literate reviewer might call it a “theme”): exploring the many ways that people may fake their way through their own lives, and what happens when the real person they’ve suppressed finally breaks through. But a book’s theme needs to support its characters, not the other way around. Every time I reread Crazy For You I notice something new supporting the theme of small changes snowballing into large consequences, and I smile at the author’s cleverness. But I would never have noticed this theme if I hadn’t loved the characters so much the first time and wanted to play with k-k-k-Katie again. I’m sure that thematically, Faking It is equally rich, maybe more. But it’s hard to distinguish “characters supporting the theme of ‘faking it'” from “fake characters.”
Ulitimately, the good outweighs the bad, and if this were my very first Crusie, I might have awarded Faking It DIK status, but there, also, a certain amount of Krentz-itude is setting in. I can live with the dogs, but redecorating each heroine’s home and workplace is getting very old. I’m aching for a Crusie heroine who doesn’t take care of everyone around her, a Crusie teen who doesn’t sound 35, and a Crusie family that isn’t absent or useless. Gone-straight Davy is nice, but he just doesn’t have the “joie de hood” I was hoping for; I wish he’d gone for broke. Jennifer Crusie has the most playfully modern voice of anyone writing romances, but her approach to characterization seems increasingly conservative. Rather than take risks, her characters look more and more like old wine in new bottles. The pressure on a bestselling author to maintain her standards has got to be enormous, but I dearly wish she’d find some outlet (a short story collection, perhaps?) to push the envelope on the types of lead characters she writes.