This is the type of story I would be afraid to pick up if it didn’t have the name Susan Elizabeth Phillips on the cover, because there aren’t many authors out there that could get me to suspend my disbelief long enough to read a romance about the First Lady. For one thing, those of us who were born after the Kennedy presidency don’t really picture the First lady as a young, romantic figure – my immediate mental image is more of the Barbara Bush variety. Cornelia “Nealy” Case, the heroine of First Lady is the beautiful thirty-one year old widow of a young president. When he is assassinated, she is pressured into staying on as first lady by her manipulative father and the new, unmarried president.
One day Nealy decides she’s sick and tired of doing what everyone else wants her to do. She hatches a plan, and a month later she escapes from the White House in disguise. She lasts for a couple of days before her money and car are stolen – and she meets up with Mat Jorik. Mat is a journalist, and a “man’s man.” After growing up with seven sisters, he has sworn off family life for good. But when his ex-wife dies and leaves behind a baby and a teenager (neither of whom is his biological child, although his name is on their birth certificates) he suddenly finds himself driving from Pennsylvania to Iowa with both kids and a Winnebago named Mabel. Nealy joins their entourage, and slowly falls in love with both kids and Mat as they head west.
Even though they are traveling in close quarters with two kids, Nealy and Mat find several opportunities to explore their attraction. They are aided in this by the teenager, Lucy, who would like nothing more than to see them get together and adopt her little sister. But Mat doesn’t know that Nealy’s the First Lady, and she doesn’t know he’s a journalist. As much as Nealy would like a normal life, she knows she’ll always be in the spotlight, and she’s reluctant to expose Mat and the children to that kind of scrutiny. For Mat’s part, he’s still sure he wants bachelor’s life, uncluttered by commitment or children. Well, almost sure!
For a romance about the wife of a president, First Lady is surprisingly unpolitical. Although we learn that her father was the vice-president for eight years, we never find out what party anyone belongs to. We never hear about any political ideas or issues either, so if you’re a political junkie looking for a fix, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
However, if you like humor, kids, and road romance, then this is the book for you. Nealy is actually fairly believable as a First Lady and a romantic heroine. She’s fun to watch as she discovers the little things in life that she has missed. She makes the group stop at every small town festival, covered bridge, or promising picnic spot. The kids are both very realistic as well. Lucy is a typical smart-ass teenager who has plenty of bravado but secretly longs for a real family. The baby (whose name I won’t reveal as it is something of a spoiler) is very genuine as well, and the source of much of the humor in the novel. If you enjoy the humor in Phillips’ books, you’ll be glad to know that this one has plenty of comical dialogue and laugh-out-loud moments.
Anyone who has ever had a baby knows that they can spoil the best of romantic intentions, and it can be annoying to read books in which babies appear when they need to be cute and conveniently disappear when things turn amorous. Phillips avoids the problem here by having Lucy conspire to throw Mat and Nealy together, so their love scenes don’t seem unrealistic. However, this is not so much a couple romance as it is a family one. Mat and Nealy fall in love, but the story is really about the four of them, rather than the two of them. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it makes for a different kind of book than Phillips’ other offerings. If you are an enthusiastic Phillips fan (and I count myself among that number), then you have probably already bought and devoured this book. Most fans are likely to love the humor and romantic by-play in First Lady. If you can take or leave Phillips, you might want to consider your feelings about kids in romance before you pick up this book. They are a definite presence here, and admittedly, this type of story is not for everyone.