There are one and three-quarters stories in this book. Hey, buy one, get one free, right? Well, not quite. The problem is that at points the three-quarters of a story threatens to overtake the main story, which has its own rough spots to begin with.
Maxine Bleckner runs a very different sort of home-based business: she operates a phone-sex line. Off the phone, she’s a single mom, swindled out of her life’s savings by the rat who got her pregnant and deserted her, forcing her to lose her job as a flight attendant. Once the line rings, however, she morphs into India McBride, a sultry-voiced siren with an imagination that’s creative enough to keep her customers enthralled and calling back. It isn’t what she’d planned growing up, but it pays the rent and keeps her son Graham in diapers. Maxine’s latest regular client is Harold Walters, but there’s something odd about Harold: he doesn’t want to talk dirty, he just wants to talk. As in have a real conversation, about music and art and life in general. And the odd thing is that these conversations are doing what none of her other “professional” chats have done – they’re turning her on.
Harold Walters is, in reality, Harry Watson, a freelance writer and single dad. He’s accepted an assignment to do an exposé on the multi-million-dollar phone-sex industry, and he chooses the ad for India McBride at random. India’s sexy voice and easy flow of talk intrigue him, and he begins to look forward to their regular evening chats once he’s put his daughter Sadie to bed. Harry comes to enjoy their conversations in and of themselves, not because they’re part of his job. Part of his assignment is to try to get India to agree to a face-to-face meeting, and as the time approaches for the date they’ve arranged, Harry begins to wonder whether he can keep things professional – or whether he even wants to anymore.
Some of what happens is funny; some of it is a little cliché-ridden and shopworn. Harry’s a pretty likable and down-to-earth guy, and as events unfold he becomes more and more ill at ease with his deception. Once he learns India’s real identity – in a fairly comical scene – he becomes determined to get to know Maxine, and not just the voice on the other end of the phone. His only problem is that he’s already taken the money for the article, and he doesn’t know how Maxine will react once the paper runs the story. Maxine’s character is more problematic, for a number of reasons. I understand that business is business, and a girl’s gotta eat, but taking a call from one of her customers in the grocery store or while she’s on a play date for Graham was a bit much for me.
In this age of stalkers and who knows what kinds of perverts on the prowl, Maxine breaks a cardinal rule in her line of work, earning her a spot in an alcove of the TSTL Hall of Shame: she agrees to meet a client. It doesn’t matter that it’s in a public place, and I couldn’t accept that she would be that careless of her safety. The meeting is pivotal to the plot and her decision to agree to it rang false for me. It’s a red-flag example of characters acting for the sake of the plot, instead of plot flowing from characterization.
Now, about that secondary romance I spoke of in my opening remarks: it’s between Polly, Maxine’s lawyer and good friend, and a doctor she meets in the wake of a car accident. Polly’s pretty loose when it comes to sleeping with men, and she doesn’t understand why this guy isn’t willing to hop into bed with her right away – but it seems he has other, longer-term plans for their relationship. This story is almost strong enough that it might make a terrific category-length romance on its own, but here it only takes the spotlight off the Maxine-and-Harry storyline.
You’d think a book about phone sex would garner a sensuality rating of “hot,” but this one falls short of that. While things get warm – pretty darn warm – they never quite steam up enough to cross the line. There’s lots of mental lusting going on, as well as lots of allusions to Maxine’s business, but most of it’s fairly vague and just a little disappointing. It takes more than thong panties and thigh-high stockings to make a steamy sex scene.
Bobby Hutchinson doesn’t break any new ground with this book. That said, she writes well and gives her book a brisk pace. If you can make the quantum leap of faith that a phone-sex worker would be dumb enough to meet a client, and you’re not uncomfortable with her taking business calls in front of her child, then you might enjoy Gentleman Caller more than I did.