One thing that makes romance novels different from literary fiction is that they seldom have a serious message. The new light contemporary Handyman has one and, much as I disliked this book, I happen to agree with it. Handyman‘s premise is, in a nutshell: men may be from Mars and women from Venus, but sometimes you just need someone to fix your faucet. Unfortunately the characters in Handyman need more than a new faucet. After spending a few days with them I thought that they, and the heroine in particular, really did need some kind of therapy. When a crank like me starts siding with self-help gurus, there’s a problem. Nevertheless, I have the sneaking suspicion that people are so desperate for somebody take a shot at the overblown “empowerment” movement, that even a weak vehicle like Handyman is going to hit the jackpot.
The premise of Handyman is simple. Jake Cooper, carpenter, handyman, and all around nice guy, happens to be renovating the office of Dr. Jason Golding, author of a typical empowerment book, The 21-Day Overhaul, when who should come in but Maggie Ivey? Maggie is so upset and overcome with her problems that Jake refrains from interrupting her as she sobs her way through what, she thinks, is a therapy session. Dr. Golding has recently suffered a heart attack and is out of the office, so Maggie, who has never met Doctor Golding, assumes that Jake is the doctor.
Maggie has real problems. Her little boy, Tim gets chronic ear infections. She has no heath insurance and her lecherous boss is constantly threatening to fire her for staying home to care for him. Maggie lives in a bad neighborhood in a shabby apartment with broken locks. You can see why she’s crying. Jake takes pity on Maggie. Rather than telling her who he is, he decides to impersonate Dr. Golding until he can help her get on her feet. He befriends her son and fixes her locks. Then he pays a visit to the boss that results in a raise, a promotion, health insurance and five thousand dollars in back pay.
Can you see where this is going? Yes, Jake is saving Maggie. He keeps on saving her. Maggie is this poor unwed mother to whom many bad, bad things have happened. She’s a talented artist but all the bad things have kept her from her art. Maggie’s best friend, Gina, who is paying for the therapy, keeps telling her that she’s got to wake up and manage her own life. I know this sounds harsh but that mean old friend has a point. Maggie is a full grown adult with a child. The fact that she needs a man to go into her place of work and negotiate with her boss is a very bad sign. And, it doesn’t help that Jake’s actions are positively miraculous. One visit from Jake to Maggie’s boss is all it takes. He merely mentions sexual harassment and Maggie’s biggest problems are solved. Why? Because he’s a man, I suppose.
The characters in Handyman are of the cardboard cutout variety. Anyone who supports the self-help movement – i.e. Dr. Golding, Gina (Maggie’s friend), and Jake’s old girlfriend are all selfish and insensitive to Maggie’s problems. The good salt-of-the-earth types such as Jake, his mother and sisters, all focus more on helping Maggie than getting her to help herself. As time goes on, Maggie does start to take charge of her own life, but I was relatively unimpressed. It’s not terribly rewarding to see someone who has been rescued from her big problems, solve her smaller ones.
The longer this book went on the more frustrated I became. The self-help industry can be funny, and the first chapter of Handyman is a scream because it features Dr. Golding, the stuffed shirt author of The 21-Day Overhaul. But once the story began in earnest, Maggie-the-Victim and Jake-the-Savior became so tiresome that, had I not been reviewing Handyman, I never would have finished it.
This is Linda Nichols first book. It’s written in the kind of slick, light style that is the mark of many best sellers. I strongly suspect that the publishers expect it to be one. What a disappointing sign that is. As I closed Handyman for the last time I couldn’t help but reflect that in a genre with so many feisty historical heroines, Handyman is the story of a 1990’s wimp.