Under the Table
Stephanie Evanovich’s Under the Table, a gender-reversed modernization of My Fair Lady, produces mainly mixed results and never manages to become anything unique, especially funny or breathtaking before reaching its infuriating conclusion.
After years of living and working in Ohio, Zoey Sullivan is managing life in the Big Apple pretty well, even though it means sharing space with her older sister Ruth. Her new job as a private caterer for the rich and mysterious Tristan Malloy means lying about her expertise in Cajun food and realizing that mac and cheese doesn’t go with jambalaya, but anything that gets her foot in the door is a plus.
She soon becomes intrigued by Tristan’s buttoned-down nature and the heavily stocked beauty of his kitchen, and when she forgets to give him back the key to his apartment after a dinner party and returns to rectify her mistake, his fine body as he emerges from the bathroom lipsynching along to Walk This Way. There’s some depth behind his stuffy surface; when he confesses that in spite of his incredibly diverse stock portfolio, he’s been severely sheltered by his loving grandparents, and is thus a lonely nerd with very little sexual experience, she agrees to provide him a little bit of social education so he can properly step out. After helping Tristan cool-up – and accepting golf lessons at his private club in return – she, like every Higgins before her, begins to fall for her own creation and gets jealous when her sister Ruth’s test drive with him at a wedding goes well. But even as she and Tristan fall into like, into bed and into love with one another, Zoey’s harboring a big problem that blocks the path to her happily ever after – a Midwestern rednecky ex-alcoholic not-yet-ex-husband named Derek, from whom she is on a trial separation, and who is determined to change himself enough to win her back.
Under the Table is as smooth as soft serve ice cream – quick, easy to read and painless. I definitely liked the thematic reversal of the Higgins/Eliza pairing, but the speed with which the hero and heroine bond, the lack of real originality in the events that befall them, and weak characterization turn the book’s temperature ice cold.
The characters are okay, but ultimately pretty shallow. Tristan is a nice, kind, shy dork with a hot bod (who is a natural dynamo in bed even though his own sexual experiences have been bad – honestly, I’d have liked Tristan more if he weren’t so unutterably perfect); Zoey is brave and paranoid, sometimes at the same time. They are not particularly unique or interesting, so even though they’re nice they’re bland. The only time Zoey felt like a person and not a plot construct was when she was talking about food. Ruth is the typical sassy, heedless best-friend figure, and the author is clearly enamored of her, but she’s not nearly as fun as clan Plum even when she’s punching out pervy jerks for putting their hands on her, and she does some truly ridiculous because-reasons last act stuff that feels completely out of the character we’ve observed. Derek, meanwhile, is a total evil ex stereotype, right down to the cheating and alcoholism, which makes Zoey’s eventual choice with regard to him ridiculous.
There are also plenty of plot holes. That shy Tristan is so okay with Zoey, a total stranger, standing there eye-humping him while he has a private moment lipsynching that it leads to a confession as to how he lost his virginity is odd enough; that Zoe didn’t dot every i and cross every t and divorce her loser husband – who cheated on her and was trying to coerce her into getting pregnant before she moved across the country – instead of giving him a trial separation was a total UPS for me – an Unforgivable Plot Sin. How can Zoey – who at the opening of the book is a wide-eyed naïf in the city who’s too afraid to use her cell phone in public yet somehow also advertises for jobs on Craigslist – be some sort of expert on loosening up in a big, sophisticated city? Why does Ruth hammer Zoey for never taking risks and being spontaneous when she threw herself in a car and drove to New York with nothing but her savings to make a fresh start?
And then Zoey does what she does in the last quarter of the book, which is so unutterably foolish that it was painfully frustrating. It does lead to the late-book introduction of a character that I loved, but I wish she’d turned up earlier and had a bigger part to play.
And major, major points off for having a heroine who was sure she didn’t want a baby, who suffered through her ex’s coersion and whose new partner accepted that and was cool with it end up throwing caution to the wind in a babies-ever-after epilogue. Enough. It’s 2019. Stop pushing this message, authors.
Evanovich is a solid writer, a good writer as always, but she’s done better than this. Under the Table might be okay for a library withdrawal or a Sunday beach read, but no matter how creamy and sweet your ice cream is, sometimes you want a couple of brownie chunks or cookie dough in it.. Sadly, this book doesn’t even toss on a handful of sprinkles.
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