When Lightning Strikes
I like Susan Elizabeth Phillips which means I am very experienced when it comes to the use of the crazy premise. Girl meets football pro while wearing a beaver costume? Read it. Girl meets star quarterback by pretending to be hooker? Read that one too. But Phillips wisely has unique people find themselves in one of a kind situations. When you try to combine the meet kooky with professionalism and everyday folks, you wind up with an eye rolling beginning and a story that has the reader questioning the sanity (or at least the intelligence) of your hero and heroine. Sadly, that is exactly what this novel did.
Gail DeMarco has formed a firm that has lived up to its name. Big Hit PR’s client list reads like a who’s who of the brightest stars in LA. The brightest star of them all sits at the very top of the list – sexy, outrageous leading man Simon O’Neal. Simon’s outrageous behavior takes a turn for the worse after a nasty divorce and Gail finds herself putting out fires right and left. Tired of the inferno she drops him from her client list and makes scathing remarks about him to the press. Shockingly, Simon’s response to this is to tell his A-list buddies they would be better off joining him at another firm. Faster than you can say “dumb decision,” the only phone calls that come into Big Hit are those letting Gail know her services are no longer needed. She looks at her employees and realizes that it will take a miracle for her to be able to pay their salaries for the next week, much less any time beyond that. Realizing that the only thing she can do is ask for mercy from the merciless, she confronts Simon at a party to celebrate the premiere of his latest movie.
When Simon O’Neal told his business manager he was angry with Gail, he had no idea the man would use that as an excuse to destroy her business. He feels bad the whole thing happened and when she lets him know how horrible things are by crying in front of his friends at an industry party, he determines to help. But before he can lift the telephone and try to fix the problem he finds himself outed as a sex offender – by Gail! With allegations of sexual assault hanging over his head the chances of gaining even partial custody of his son go out the window. When he confronts Gail, she gives a half-hearted apology. Her assistant had tried to get even for the damage done to the firm by publishing lies in a gossip rag about him. But she has a solution – if he just marries a nice girl all the gossip will disappear. After some wrangling, Gail, Simon and his business manager all decide that the best solution is for Simon to marry her. She has a reputation as a straight arrow and good girl and that’s just what he needs.
Their courtship puts to rest the rumor of him being a sexual molester, but an accident which sends him to the hospital opens up questions about his sobriety and mental health once again. Gail determines the best thing to do is for them to get hitched fast and move to her small town of Whiskey Creek, CA – several hours away from LA. This will give Simon a break from the paparazzi and endless grind of work. It will also take him away from boozy parties and floozy women, the two things that destroyed his reputation in the first place. She is certain that once Simon spends some time in middle-class America, he will be cured of his alcoholism and anything else keeping him away from his young son. But as Simon shows his sweeter side, what will keep Gail from falling for this unattainable star?
I found a lot to dislike about this novel. Let me just start by saying that a false accusation of sexual molestation should always be met with a lawsuit. When people falsify these claims, they can destroy a person’s life and also make it harder for real victims to receive justice. What happened there wasn’t just an “oops, sorry” but a nasty, illegal act. Gail did not even fire the employee who did this. In her eyes, had Simon not hurt her company to begin with, it never would have happened, so he was really the one to blame. I found that attitude appalling.
This takes me to point number two – business ethics and behavior. Hollywood PR firms are hired to handle publicity for their celeb clients. The more good PR they need, the more money you generate. I bet when Kim Kardashian went through her debacle of a divorce, her firm did not throw up their hands and say “You’re hopeless!” They probably all danced around singing about the bonuses they’d get at Christmas. It was ridiculous for Gail to act the way she did – she threw out exactly the type of client who would generate money to pay the salaries she was so concerned with. Even if she didn’t want Simon as a client and wanted to only work for Disney stars (oh, wait…) she should not have blasted him to the press. A simple “Mr. O’Neal and Big Hit feel he would be better represented by another firm,” makes sense, not “there’s no telling what kind of disease he is carrying.” I suppose all of this was to show us that Gail retained her small town values and that Hollywood people are scum. I was offended by that. Most small towns have exactly the same behavior as those of the people in LA. The difference? Nobody puts it in the paper when the guy across the street womanizes incessantly and drinks to the point of receiving several DUI’s. You aren’t a better person for living in a town of less than 2,000. If it were that easy to improve the species, it would have become a government mandate long ago.
I also didn’t understand why Gail went to work for Hollywood celebrities if she didn’t like people who drank to excess and cheated on their significant others. The media is covered with these kind of stories when it comes to celebrities. Celebrating the foibles and faux pas of our rich and famous is virtually a national pastime. What kind of work was she expecting to do in La La land? I think this was one of the points that bothered me the most. We all enjoy spouting off our opinions on the Jersey Shore folks but we don’t make our livings off their problems. It seemed cruel to feel yourself so superior while you were making money from their mistakes.
The whole idea of marriage fixing things and Gail having a good enough national reputation to salvage Simon’s was plainly ridiculous. She was unrecognizable so how would most of America know that she was a good girl? And why would marriage as opposed to a lawsuit salvage the situation? It hasn’t been the fix all for Tom Cruise, Michael Jackson or John Travolta. The entire idea was just flat out dumb. And unprofessional. It also overlooked the simple factor that we tend to forgive our celebrities a lot these days. Maybe in 1950 this would have been needed. But now? Few scandals can bury a star. None of them would be solved by a marriage license.
Those flaws take up the first several hundred pages of the novel. I kept thumping the book against the wall I was so frustrated. Once we get to Whiskey Creek things don’t improve much. We meet Gail’s family, who at first hate Simon for his bad press and then warm right up to him after he takes their abuse. We meet Gail’s friends, who feel free to be rude to Simon for his past. We learn about Simon’s divorce and realize that this isn’t the first dumb decision he’s made. We watch the two of them grow close but I never really understood why. Gail maintains her moral superiority throughout the novel. It is only as Simon becomes “small town” that he becomes acceptable. At one point we see the two living in a fixer upper the size of Simon’s mansion bedroom. I think we are supposed to believe that this makes them more grounded and in touch with reality. The author seemed more concerned with the trappings of middle class America as a cure all than she did in human connectedness and the power of love and friendship. What made this especially interesting was that Gail’s friends and family really weren’t that supportive. They helped out some (I think her dad drove Simon to the hardware store once and her brother offered to do some repairs if they needed his help) but they weren’t the kind of close knit group that makes you long for something deeper in your own life.
An added kick in the pants is that Simon’s alcoholism was self-cured, even though it was presented as pretty serious at the start of the novel.
Ms. Novak is a good writer and manages to put some sweet moments in the book but they came far too late for this reader. I suppose those who believe that Hollywood is evil and small towns the essence of all that is good might enjoy this book. I couldn’t stomach the bigotry or the easy dismissal of serious law breaking. I know there are better small town books out there and would recommend readers pick those up.