Staying Single is the first book in Harlequin’s new Flipside series. Too bad there’s nothing new about it. Described in the author’s letter as a cross between Chick Lit and the usual romance novel, the book takes the most familiar ingredients of both and comes off as more than a little stale. Throw in unlikable characters on top of the clichés and the book does not get the series off to a good start.
The third time still isn’t the charm for Francesca Morelli, whose third wedding ends the way the first two did – with the bride abandoning her groom at the altar. Pressured by her overbearing mother to get married, Francesca has no trouble getting engaged, but when it comes time to say her vows, she can’t go through with it. Besides her mother, her friends and family are so used to her cold feet that they already have her bags packed and an escape route planned for her before the wedding even starts.
Best man Mark Fielding is less accepting of her actions. Furious that she abandoned his brother at the altar and mortified that she’s pulled this before, he decides to teach her a lesson. He’ll woo her, propose to her, then abandon her at the altar. That’ll teach her! But as all revenge plans in romance novels do, Mark’s goes awry when real feelings emerge.
The front cover bills the Flipside series as “Fun, witty, unexpected.” “Annoying, forced, predictable” more accurately describes this book. All of the characters were irritating from the start. Francesca is more Chick Lit stereotype than an actual character, cobbled together from the spare parts of other stories. She has every single city girl’s most valuable accessory, the gay roommate, who calls her sweetie nonstop and is so effeminate he actually uses the phrase, “Oh, pooh” at one point, as well as a “sassy” best friend who gets to say all the things our demure heroine cannot. She has a job in public relations, as well as a monstrously cartoonish Italian family, including the “comically” overbearing stereotypical Italian mother. (Mark on Francie’s mother: “I take it Josephine was the harridan in the blue dress that kept screaming and wailing that this couldn’t be happening again, then crossing herself in front of the altar and vowing revenge?”)
Josephine is one of those aggravating, meddling ethnic mothers (“Francie had strange ideas in her head about marriage and children, and it was a mother’s job to fix that, to set her daughter straight. No self-respecting woman would choose a career over having babies! It was unthinkable!”) who decides the solution to all of Francie’s matrimonial problems is to find a fourth groom and get married as soon as possible. She’s afraid people will think Francesca is a lesbian if she doesn’t get married soon, leading Francie to muse not-so-cleverly on the virtues of being a lesbian, a gag that seems at least several years too old. It’s one of several strained “humorous” passages that falls flat. Most of the attempts to be hip and edgy are so soft and forced they aren’t close to funny.
It’s difficult to feel much empathy for a woman willing to make her and her fiancé’s loved ones spend tons of money on weddings and receptions she doesn’t really want and likely will not follow through on. If she has such a phobia about not getting married and doesn’t really love these men, she needs to have the backbone to stick up to her mother and stop playing with the feelings of these men and their families. There’s nothing heroic about her selfishness. Regular Chick Lit readers who are more used to self-absorbed protagonists may not mind, although Francie also lacks the vivid personality to make her interesting to read about. Julia Roberts may have pulled this kind of stuff in Runaway Bride, but she actually had some charisma to make her character’s actions not entirely horrible. Francie does not. Instead, she’s just another bland, wishy washy wimp passing for a romance “heroine.”
Mark is one of those women-hating “heroes” whose misogyny is far from charming. Every woman he’s ever known hurt him, therefore all women are bad. Mark on Francesca: “Oh sure, Francie came across as nice, because she wanted his business. But he knew what the woman was really like-a heartbreaker, ball-buster, selfish to the bone. She was no different from all the other women he’d known.” Isn’t he charming? But at least he can rhyme! He doesn’t even know her, but he’s willing to judge her. When he describes his revenge plot as something he “had to do,” as if he has no choice in the matter, I could only shake my head.
Staying Single is not poorly written and it moves quickly so at least it’s over relatively soon. But it’s a book that tries too hard and the combination of old-fashioned story and contemporary sensibilities is an uneasy one. This isn’t the best start for the Flipside line, though the very first books in the ill-fated Love & Laughter and Duets lines weren’t that great either. Hopefully this isn’t a sign this line will be following those series’ lead to failure as well.