Desert Isle Keeper
I know Hostess Suzi-Qs are bad for me, but I can’t help it. I love ’em. Even reading the list of ingredients on the package doesn’t stop me from scarfing the darn things down – there’s something about that specific combination of chocolate cake and gooey cream that’s irresistible to me. I’ve thought about it for a long time and I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, re-reading Jude Deveraux’s Sweet Liar is the literary equivalent of eating Suzi-Qs. I know parts of it are enough to make me gag, but there’s just something about it that makes everything worthwhile. Unlike the Suzi-Q’s, however, I can pinpoint exactly what draws me into this book, and that’s the hero, Michael Taggert.
Following the death of her father, divorcee Samantha Elliot travels to New York City to fulfill an odd condition of his will: she has to live in the city for a year and see what she can find out about her grandmother, who disappeared immediately after the murder of Samantha’s mother when Sam was very young. To help – or compel – her, her dad has sold their house out from under her and taken a twelve-month lease on an apartment in Manhattan, so Samantha really has no choice but to obey her father’s wishes. She arrives at the apartment and meets (in very unorthodox fashion) her landlord, the oh-so-attractive, oh-so-charming, oh-so-wealthy Michael Taggert. Having sworn off men after her disastrous marriage, Samantha resists Mike – and slips into a depression that almost kills her.
Mike doesn’t understand the immediate and undeniable pull he feels for Samantha, but he’s smart enough not to question it either. Dismayed by the infrequent sightings of his tenant looking more and more listless, ill, and unkempt, he takes a drastic step and basically kidnaps her from her cocoon of withdrawal to drag her back into the land of the living. Once he’s sure that Samantha’s rejoined the world, Mike helps her to get to the matter at hand: discover what happened to her grandmother, a lady with a very colorful and dangerous past. Along the way he hopes she’ll fall as much in love with him as he is with her.
It turns out that Mike knows something about Samantha’s family; he met her dad because both of them were investigating a 1920’s nightclub, Jubilee’s Place, and the tragic and mysterious events surrounding its last, violent night of business back in 1928. Mike’s honorary uncle – a former small-time gangster and taxi-dancer, the man for whom he’s named – left him some clues, but Mike needs to find the club’s enigmatic singer Maxie to fill in the holes in his knowledge…if she’s still alive, that is. He becomes convinced that Maxie and Samantha’s grandmother are one and the same; now all he has to do is find her, so that both he and Samantha will get the answers to their questions. Their plans involve interviewing a retired mobster, rebuilding Jubilee’s Place, and recreating that last fateful night. And it seems that mysterious forces are on their side, because once the plans are underway, some really weird things happen.
Okay, let’s get the discussion of all the stuff that doesn’t work out of the way. First of all, there’s all the paranormal garbage: when Samantha puts on her grandmother’s dress, it’s almost like she becomes possessed by the old lady’s spirit. The reenactment of the 1920’s-era speakeasy is way hokey, and the way Mike and Samantha are able to recreate the place down to the last detail is pretty unbelievable. Samantha is only partly believable as a Sleeping Beauty; she was married before, totally competent at her jobs, yet she allowed her heel of a husband to make her feel worthless, and of course she’s never had an orgasm. Right.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Deveraux’s writing style. Sometimes I wonder whether she re-reads some of the dialogue she writes, because in spots it sounds so stilted and unnatural. But in this book she routinely delivers some terrific one-line zingers (such as the old lady who wonders why a young woman would blush at her mention of making love: “Why is it every generation thinks it invented sex?”), and while I might roll my eyes at some of the twists and turns the story takes, the plot never sags.
Normally, I would have a low threshold for the kinds of weaknesses I’ve outlined in the above two paragraphs, but I’m willing to put up with all the dumb crap in the book just to get to Mike Taggert. Next to Jamie Fraser (of Diane Gabaldon’s Outlander), he’s my favorite romance hero. The man is pure fantasy, and nobody does a fantasy man as well as Jude Deveraux. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, Mike is a complete character. And completely appealing, to boot. When he tells Samantha, “I’m Michael Taggert, and I’m a different man,” my bones just melt.
What reader could resist a man who drags the woman he loves on an all-day shopping and makeover marathon at Saks Fifth Avenue, who insists on spending oodles of money on her, who worries about her health and spirits even when she’s not worried about herself, who helps her discover the truth about her family’s shady past, who teaches her to appreciate and celebrate who she is, who breaks down the walls of negativity built up by her ex-husband, and who’s drop-dead gorgeous to boot? This guy suffers from a refreshing drop of self-doubt, by the way, and he’s never let all his money go to his head. He also loves, loves, loves kids. Here’s how Deveraux describes him:
He was the most perfectly formed man she’d [Samantha] ever imagined. He was movie stars, men in underwear commercials, guys at the gym, the construction worker in the red T-shirt who’d whistled at her but she’d pretended she hadn’t heard; he was the men in three-piece suits whose brains were as sexy as their bodies; he was lazy, indolent seventeen-year-old boys whose muscles bulged out of their clothes, rodeo stars, and those smooth-cheeked, eyeglassed men who held their children tenderly. He was all of them.
I’ll take one of each, please.