Natural Born Charmer
What you start out with here is definitely not what you ultimately get.
With opening scenes decidedly on the wacky side, Natural Born Charmer soon evolves into the story of a group of wounded people coming to terms with themselves and the mess they’ve made (with the help of others) of their lives. And, yes, if you’re detecting a tone problem here, it’s one that persists in a number of different ways throughout the book.
If you read Match Me if You Can, you no doubt remember Chicago Stars quarterback and feckless charmer Dean Robillard. With his golden boy life wearing thin (I hate it when that happens), Dean hits the road in his Aston Martin and soon enough runs across a young woman in a beaver costume walking down a Colorado road. Turns out the young woman, one Blue Bailey, is, indeed, as prickly as a real life beaver and decidedly ungrateful for her rescue, but Dean somehow ends up driving her to the rooming house. Once there, he witnesses an ugly scene, including the tiny (and, boy, does SEP keep reminding you of just how tiny) Blue actually physically attacking her loser ex.
Dean soon learns that Blue – who pretty much redefines “crabby” and “defensive” – is totally broke with no place to live, so somehow the two of them wind up on their way to the farm Dean purchased in East Tennessee. Upon their unexpected arrival, however, Dean is stunned to find that the woman in charge of extensive renovations to his farmhouse is none other than his estranged mother, April.
A former groupie with severe drug and alcohol problems, April, clean for ten years, has managed to establish a successful career as an L.A. fashion stylist. But Dean still hasn’t come even close to forgiving her for the mess she made of his childhood and refuses – at least at first – to accept her humble gift of perfectly decorating his home, something she planned to accomplish without Dean’s knowledge. Still, somehow Blue, April, and Dean take up an uneasy residence together.
Dean’s parental problems are further complicated by the fact that his father is none other than “Mad Jack” Patriot, a legendary rock star whose presence in his life largely consisted of the generous child support he regularly paid. Dean, not surprisingly, hates Dad, too.
The threesome at the farm unexpectedly becomes a foursome when 11-year old Riley, Jack’s daughter from his former marriage to a country music star, shows up at the farm following the death of her mother. Clearly in need of love, attention, and understanding, Riley ran away from her relatives to find the glamorous half-brother she’s never met – a half-brother, by the way, who has no interest in being one. And with Riley now on the farm, could Mad Jack be far behind?
On the positive side, this book is leagues better than most contemporary romances out there. These are real, robust characters, despite the fact that anybody who’s ever read even one single romance novel before will know exactly what’s in store for each and every one of them. (And I have to admit, in at least one case, the HEA struck me as w-a-a-a-y too easy.) SEP also isn’t afraid to tackle the fact that these really are wounded people with real issues about their pasts – in other words, the problems the characters are facing never feel like artificial romance novel conflicts.
But then there is that tone issue. Dean goes from being the feckless charmer we know and love to acting like a spoiled (and not in a very attractive way) little boy. Okay, so he’s got good cause to be angry at his mother, but it’s hard to be sympathetic towards a character who is so persistently unpleasant to a woman who’s been clean for many years. And then there is his relationship with Blue. Since scenes between the twosome consist mostly of verbal sparring with a real edge to it, along with a healthy heaping of lust mixed in, they really didn’t really feel much like the build-up of love to me.
And let me tell you, sparring is the order of the day here. Blue, the daughter of a peace activist who was far too involved in the problems of the world to be a mother to her only daughter, has real problems of her own, resulting in her own aggressively prickly persona. Blue has a tendency to Crack the Wise and, as often as not, it comes off as crabby and unpleasant and, truthfully, just not very funny, though she does manage a few good zingers now and then. The author does an excellent job of making the reader understand why she is the way she is, but, regrettably, I never warmed up to her. (A note here to the copy editor: The fabulous Green Day song is titled Good Riddance, not Time of Your Life.)
Frankly, since it’s hard for me to remain completely invested in two such pugnacious characters, I found my sympathies (and my interest) more often than not resting with April and Riley, both of whom are incredibly well drawn. Riley’s character is especially heart-breaking and reading the book for her story alone, along with that of April and Jack, would be well worth the price of admission.
Still, even if I didn’t always like the two main protagonists here, as a reader I was challenged enough to care about what happens to them and that, along with the fact that the conflicts were always real, ranks this book solidly in the B zone. But then I can’t help going back to the tone set by that beaver costume and those first few scenes, something you’ll have a hard time reconciling when Blue and Dean are in the midst of insulting each other and the angst is as heavy as the humidity on a sultry East Tennessee night. It’s an odd beginning to a book I still can’t really define even after thinking about it for a few days. SEP definitely took some chances here, but I’m just not certain how well they ultimately pay off.