The back cover of my advance reading copy of Risky Business, Suzanne MacPherson’s debut novel, informs me that she is “destined to become a star.” In my opinion, MacPherson isn’t ready for stardom just yet, but she certainly has a lot of potential. Her writing style is charming and humorous. It’s unfortunate that the book is weighed down by an improbable setup, an extremely flimsy suspense plot, and some rather clichéd plotting.
Speaking as someone who worked as an insurance underwriter for four years, I find the setup of this novel to be extremely unbelievable. Marla Meyers, a supermodel, is a klutz who needs insurance on her face, so she goes to Tom Riley, an obscure agent for an out-of-touch insurance company. Tom, a nerdy guy who wears taped-together reading glasses and plaid polyester shirts, is down on his luck. Divorced a couple of years before, he lives in a roach-infested apartment and works in a rundown office with no modern equipment. (He actually types up Marla’s policy on an IBM Selectric.) Not surprisingly, he hasn’t managed to sell a policy for months. Desperate for that enormous commission, he promptly issues a policy, knowing all the while his home office will be furious when they find out.
Already the insurance underwriter in me is screaming in protest, and I am only on page six. You can’t just walk into any insurance office and get a policy along such unusual lines, even if you already have a policy with that company. A policy like this would ordinarily be handled by a company that specializes in unusual risks. The author evidently knows this perfectly well, since she later mentions that several of the other models’ legs are covered by none other than Lloyd’s of London. Evidently she’s ignoring business realities for plot purposes.
The setup gets even more silly. When Tom submits the policy to the home office (going to Kinko’s because he’s running his business with no fax machine) they inform him they’ll only honor the policy if he shadows Marla every waking hour for a month. In other words, he’s to act as her bodyguard to make sure she doesn’t hurt herself. No reputable insurance company would require an agent to be with a client every moment of the day. Nor can I imagine a famous model agreeing to put up with being shadowed by a polyester-clad insurance agent for thirty days.
Another problem is the plot, which features with a number of romance stereotypes. Despite the fact that Tom has to go everywhere Marla goes, she is asked to keep the information that she’s obtained a policy on her face under wraps (since she’s paying for the policy herself, it’s not clear why this should be necessary). So, in a stunningly unoriginal plot twist, she introduces Tom to her fellow models as… her boyfriend. He then takes advantage of her explanation to kiss her. Not just any kiss, mind you, but a “long wet” kiss. This seems like rather unprofessional behavior for an insurance agent, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt – perhaps he’s checking her mouth for foreign objects that might pose some sort of hazard. And despite the fact that Marla seemed to participate fully in the kiss and enjoy it, she immediately becomes extremely annoyed with him and demands that he never do it again.
Later, in order to make their “romantic” relationship seem more plausible, Marla has a friend give Tom a makeover. Amazingly, the nerdy Tom turns out to be a muscular, good-looking hunk. And if all this isn’t enough, the author relies on an improbable coincidence to help power her plot. Tom is a big fan of Mike Mason Mysteries, which just happen to be written by our heroine under a pen name. (She’s beautiful, she’s a famous model, and she writes popular books on the side. I am so envious.)
Tom’s presence as a bodyguard doesn’t seem to do much good. Marla trips and falls into a wedding cake. She has an allergic attack that makes her face swell. Eventually Tom begins to suspect that Marla isn’t the klutz she believes herself to be – it looks as though someone is deliberately sabotaging her in an effort to damage her career.
At this point, around the two-hundred page mark, the book started to look a little more interesting. What appeared to be a suspense plot started rolling. Unfortunately, the suspense plot simply fizzles out in the end, leaving several badly frayed loose ends. In order to avoid spoilers, I won’t disclose more here, but I expected a lot more and was extremely disappointed. I also didn’t feel a lot of chemistry, or even love, between the two characters, partly due to another awkward plot device. Well over the halfway through the book, right about the time their relationship is finally warming up, there is a lengthy and dreaded hero/heroine separation. Marla runs off to Indiana, leaving Tom alone for over eighty pages.
Some of the phrasing is awkward as well. At one point, early on in the book, Tom inadvertently flings Coke on Marla’s “bosom.” That’s the word the author used. Really. And Tom refers to his “manly parts” (again, that’s the author’s phrasing, not mine) as “Mr. Big.” At least he isn’t suffering from excessive modesty.
On the up side, I genuinely liked the characters. Tom in particular is charming, perhaps because he’s an unusual hero. He’s dead broke – a nice change from the tycoon or sports star hero that seems so common nowadays – and his job is, to put it bluntly, pitiful. He’s an ordinary guy who’s been stuck in a holding pattern since his divorce, and hasn’t really noticed how pathetic his life has become. Even so, he’s devoted to his son, Max, whom he makes time to see every day, and I found his love for Max one of the nicest things about his character. In fact, we gradually begin to see that Tom has stripped his life down to the bare necessities in order to provide the maximum amount of child support for his son. Now that’s a hero. Too bad Marla doesn’t really begin to appreciate him until she sees him in a sexy haircut and fashionable clothes.
To be fair, though, Marla’s a fairly interesting character herself. She’s a model, yet her life doesn’t revolve around clothes and glamorous parties. Her real love is writing, and we see her working hard at it. She’s struggled to get where she is (her childhood was marred by a step mom who makes Snow White’s stepmother look sweet and kind), and she doesn’t have a problem with working in the mud when she returns to her father’s farm. She’s neither spoiled nor ditzy.
The secondary characters were more of a mixed bag. One nicely depicted character, to my surprise, was Tom’s ex-wife. It appeared as if she was going to be the stereotypical shrew, yet within five minutes of meeting Marla, she’s giggling in the kitchen with her. And she’s a good mom, too. We have two parents here trying to do the best thing for their kid, under the circumstances, which I found refreshing. Unfortunately, some of the other characters collapsed back into stereotype, particularly Marla’s best friend, a gay hairdresser who dresses like a flamboyant Liberace, and Tom’s friend Rama, the East Indian cabdriver.
With a stronger suspense plot, a more believable setup, and less reliance on romance conventions, Risky Business might have been a terrific debut. As it stands, it’s nothing special. But MacPherson’s writing style is amusing enough that I’ll probably give her a second chance and pick up her next book.