AAR’s reviewed Susan Elizabeth Phillips sixteen times–we’ve given her ten DIKs. The lowest grade she’s gotten here is a single C. (That book, Dance Away with Me, also got a B here.) Given that she’s been writing since 1983–her first book, The Copeland Bride, was published under the name Justine Cole. Most romance readers first discovered her in 1991 when she wrote Hot Shot, a remarkably prophetic book about the the rise of the personal computer. Wikipedia credits her with inventing the sports romance and her Chicago Stars series is one of the best selling romance series of its era. Other than The Copeland Bride, we’ve reviewed all but two of her books: Heroes Are My Weakness and Fancy Pants.
When I first started reading romance, Phillips was one of the first authors I glommed. I love stories with secondary romances and she does them beautifully–Jack and April, Lilly and Liam, Torie and Dexter, to name just a few. The Chicago Stars series is still, with Rachel Gibson’s Chinooks, one of my favorite two sport romance series of all time.
Many readers find Phillips’ work problematic. Endless ink has been spilled about consent in This Heart of Mine and in Nobody’s Baby But Mine. (It’s interesting that in both cases the aggressor is the heroine.) The hero in Kiss an Angel is not for the faint of heart and the actions of Way, the secondary romance lead in Heaven, Texas are decidedly iffy.
What do you think? Do you love SEP? Did you once but no longer do? And whatever you think, tell us why!
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Her books are excellent in so many ways that I have trouble figuring out what holds me back from loving them. I think it’s that I hate seeing people humiliated, and it happens so often to her characters. I don’t care that it’s a “learning experience” for them. It bothers me.
What I have always appreciated about SEP is the realism behind her character’s actions. The pain, hurt, fear, love, longing, trust…it rings true. Even if the situational stuff makes you need to suspend disbelief.
I would give a friend any of her books – with a caveat as needed – if they were looking for a good romance.
I don’t know about any of her books–there are a few I actively dislike–but I do think many of her books are wonderful romances.
And while I can understand while many readers think some of her plots are problematic, I don’t see them that way because her heroes don’t. For me, if a hero is happy with the actions of the heroine–and in both of the books where the heroine doesn’t get consent, the heroes are happy, by the book’s end, with the actions of the heroine–then so am I.
Include me among those who read a lot of SEP in the early 2000s. I loved some of her books, including a few others have found problematic. The one book that I wanted to throw against the wall even back then was Kiss an Angel. The heroine was a hot mess at the beginning, and I found the hero unlikeable, but I came to understand and care for them as they went through their character arcs. It was Daisy’s father who made me angry. IIRC, he was bound and determined to be related to the Romanovs, hence his choice of the hero for his daughter’s husband. Removing her agency in such an important decision was bad enough, but then to tamper with her birth control was totally unconscionable – husbands can be divorced but children are forever.
I also started reading SEP in the 90s. I definitely agree that some of those books are problematic but I still have a soft spot in my heart for books like Nobody’s Baby but Yours and This Heart of Mine. But my favorites of hers are ones that I actually feel still hold up and don’t get mentioned very often in discussions about her. They are Breathing Room (a standalone about a big Hollywood action star and a self-help guru who are both in bad places in their careers, and are licking their wounds in Italy), Match Me if You Can (tangentially related to the Stars, a big time sports agent and a matchmaker just starting out), and finally, What I Did for Love (it has some problematic parts but I still enjoy it) SEP’s take on the Brad/Jennifer/Angelina thing with the Jen character getting involved with her douchebag on the surface co-star.
The quote from BJ Novak really rings true, these books were steps forward at their time (the same with so many other books that are 10+ years old) but we’ve now stepped further past them so they feel backward. But that doesn’t negate their value and in some cases, their enjoyment.
Yep! Interestingly, SEP’s oldest books are the “easiest” to recommend. More women’s fiction than romance (although there are lots of relationships contained in them): as you mentioned Breathing Room, plus Hot Shot (about the computer industry), Honey Moon (about a child actress), and Ain’t She Sweet (about a woman who returns home to a small community she treated badly while growing up there).
The real test (for me) is whether or not I’d recommend SEP to someone new to reading romance. I’d recommend up to Natural Born Charmer as her best work – but with caveats about “consent” for Nobody’s Baby But Mine and It Had To Be You.
I heard a BJ Novak interview yesterday at NPR with several questions about comedy that was perceived to work at one point in time, but perhaps doesn’t in another. His comments about context and “reading a room” and pain that went unmentioned makes a certain amount of sense to me when thinking about art in general. He summed up with:
“But I think there’s all kinds of things that you look back, and it was the right joke for that moment and totally the wrong one now. So I don’t think anyone should regret what worked then, and I don’t think anyone should bemoan that it doesn’t work now. [Comedy is] always moving.”
I think his comments are applicable when I think about SEP’s early body of work. When I began reading romance Heyer, Kleypas, Balogh, Crusie and SEP were my favorite/auto-buy authors. All in their own way they had smart, strong female characters who weren’t afraid generally to stand up to the men in their lives/orbit. Crusie and SEP’s humor was also a big draw: smart people on both sides not putting up with each other’s bullsh*t.
The fact that SEP used ridiculous situations (and in some cases by today’s standards, totally offensive behavior) to jumpstart her plots was a trademark of her writing. (I’m thinking specifically the rape/non-consensual sex at the beginning of both Nobody’s Baby But Mine and It Had To Be You.) What made SEP work or stand out from the crowd for me at the time was that it was her heroines’ stories – their actions – that really moved the plot forward. The guys were almost always reacting and playing catch-up throughout.
Did SEP’s women behave badly or ridiculously at times? Absolutely, but no more than so than many other well-regarded romance heroes at that time. Did those two opening plot devices make me roll my eyes? Absolutely! But no more so than other authors’ male characters who behaved just as badly. I wouldn’t tolerate plotting like that today for any gender – but it was typical of romance writing at the time.
It was what followed those crazy opening scenes that made SEP’s writing worth reading. Her characters (main as well as secondary) were fleshed out, they were generally smart, kind people once you got to know them, and many were just trying to get by in life. Even characters with means had issues that money wasn’t going to solve. I should also note that Natural Born Charmer – among many other distinguishing features – has the only sex scene I’ve ever read in a romance in which the hero actually has a problem having sex. Granted, it’s a small one and is quickly overcome. But it still stands out as 1) something a little unexpected and different; and 2) a scene that actually reflects what sex in the real world can be like.
According to my reading logs, Natural Born Charmer is the last SEP book I really liked. I’ve read a couple since but barely cracked a smile. There wasn’t anything new or fresh for me about those characters or their situations. She was replaced at that time (2007+) on my TBR by writers like Kristan Higgins and Julie James, a whole slew of (m/m) romantic suspense writers (e.g. Susanne Brockmann, Josh Lanyon), and paranormal/urban fantasy writers (e.g. Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison, Charlaine Harris).
That’s exactly why I didn’t go back and change my ratings for the SEP books I tried to reread and couldn’t. The really problematic ones I gave C’s to originally, but I loved Natural Born Charmer originally and I felt like “that was then, this is now.” I did put a caveat on the review that it didn’t hold up for me on second reading, but I left my 5 star rating because that’s how much I enjoyed it when I read it.
I hear you!
I agree with a lot of what Jill Q said. I also started reading SEP’s books in the 90s (although I was in my 20s, not my teens, ha ha!). I remember particularly loving Heaven, Texas and Kiss an Angel, although their heroes were problematic (the hero of Kiss an Angel does do a really good grovel at the end). I own most of her books but haven’t read those older books in years. I’m scared I would find even more problematic elements and that would take the shine off my fond memories! I can’t recall much of her last half dozen releases so they just didn’t make any impact on me. I think that is due to everything Jill Q said in her 2nd paragraph – SEP kept writing in the same way and it didn’t feel fresh and in synch with current society. I haven’t read the last 2 books (When Stars Collide, Dance Away with Me) but I may someday. I do still have a soft spot for my favorite SEP novel, which is Hot Shot.
I wonder if this is a problem experienced by authors of contemporary romances over historical. When you write in a certain time period, like Lisa Kleypas, your audience has certain knowledge/expectations of the setting, dialogue, and character behavior that are easier to meet and no one faults the sameness. I think it is more challenging to keep up with changes in contemporary society over decades – how technology is used, advent of social media, changing views on sexuality, etc. I admire Nora Roberts a lot for her longevity and I used to read a lot of her contemporary romance trilogies but I stopped years ago (when they started having more a paranormal bent) and now I only read her J.D. Robb series, which has a futuristic time setting.
She has my quickest ever DNF. The first few paragraphs contained the overblown sort of prose that those who don’t read romance think all romance books contain.
I’ve read a bunch of her books, though none of her recent ones. And they were compulsively readable. That said I was always disturbed by many (most?) of her plots. And to be clear, I read these books years ago, and my 1990 something self understood these plot points were disturbing. I’m not talking rereads in the 2020s. But, at the time, when romance was filled with rapes, etc., I kept reading.
I read Nobody’s Baby But Mine shortly after it came out and was disgusted by what was essentially a rape. I think I could have even look past it and don’t mind morally iffy stuff, but the text was very clearly on Jane’s side of things, and I never even felt like she acknowledged that what she did was wrong. Same with This Heart of Mine. And some of the heroes are as bad. It’s been years since I read it, but didn’t Bobby Tom lie about his mother being a prostitute in Heaven, Texas?
I have no desire to reread these today
I’ve read 11 SEP books, all of them before 2014. Of those I read, I’ve given 5 B’s, 5 C’s and 1 A. I’ll say right up front that most of the books were on audio narrated by the incomparable Anna Fields, and that influenced my grades upwards. Three of the C grades were the books mentioned already, Kiss an Angel, Nobody’s Baby, and This Heart of Mine, The one A was Natural Born Charmer.
At the beginning of the pandemic I reread a lot of old favorites, since years working sporadic retail hours had left me little time to read. Natural Born Charmer was one of the first I tried to relisten to, and I couldn’t finish it. Blue’s behavior was appalling, lying to Dean about his mother’s health, and I couldn’t get past it. Dean wasn’t any better. I decided then and there that SEP was in my past and I wouldn’t enjoy revisiting any of her books now. I haven’t changed my original reviews of the books on Goodreads, or the ratings, but if I were reading them today I probably wouldn’t finish many of them no matter how talented the narrator.
Some of her plots have Not Aged Well, but when she gets it right, she gets it right.
I started reading SEP when I was a teenager in the 90s and I loved her b/c it was really hard to find funny contemporaries that were heroine-centric (this was before Bridget Jones and Sex in the City). This sounds crazy to say, but I also felt like her books felt a little bit more grounded in reality? I know that sounds silly considering how many of her heroes were billionaire football players, but she used real brand names for things (unlike a Harlequin Presents that was going for more fairy tale timeless feel that I always find disorienting rather than enjoyable) and wove in lots of detail. I also really appreciated that there were other fleshed out, complex female characters, even if they were sometimes “the other woman” they were never evil or cliched.
Then I think I moved on and society moved on, but she kind of stayed the same and some of the tropes she repeated started to seem a little tired. Other people started doing similar things in a fresheer way and her writing started slowly to feel more out of touch (I think most really successful authors get this way fwiw and not just in romance) More and more of her books were duds for me. I’m not going to go into the details of what put me off certain books (b/c I do think it can be very subjective what is a deal breaker), but the last book I wholeheartedly enjoyed was THE GREAT ESCAPE (although the name Panda for a hero bugged me) and the last I finished was HEROES ARE MY WEAKNESS.
The last few were real wallbangers for me and I think I haven’t completely ruled her out, but I’ve downgraded her from “put a hold on it from the library” to “maybe if I’m bored I’ll get to it someday.” Diana Gabaldon is in the same category. I don’t in anyway regret reading those books. They shaped me and sometimes I can even revisit them, but as writers, their new books just don’t hit that same sweet spot for me anymore.
If other people are still really enjoying her books, I don’t begrudge them that either. Different strokes for different folks.
I’ll just say ditto to your post. Pretty much exactly what I feel, except I did not like The Great Escape or Heroes are My Weakness. The last one I whole heartedly enjoyed was Natural Born Charmer. I’ve been afraid to do a re-read of her earlier works – many of them were DIKs for me but I am not certain I wouldn’t question my own judgment if I went back to them.
I agree that her last great book was Natural Born Charmer. I think her books hold up as long as you take them in the time they were written. Her heroines had so much agency and she used humor to move the love story along.
I loved It had to be you when it first came out. At the time, the heroine kicked ass, for her time.
I agree with most of your analysis, and that was different things grate, but some things grate, in most of her older books, when read today. And this went on, for many books, icky bits that really detracted from the book overall.
However, When Stars Collide, her last one, worked very well for me. I felt like she updated her personalities, and did it well. I was surprised in a very good way. Has anyone read that book?
I appreciate your perspective but unfortunately, I read it and I didn’t enjoy it at all. I may just have moved completely on from her writing style and replaced her with better (for me) authors like Jasmine Guillory, Farrah Rochon, and Alexa Martin. I’ve lost the patience for Phillips hot mess heroines. I do remember that the heroine in WSC accused the hero of raping her friend. She physically assaulted him before making a phone call to find out if she had the right guy. I remember being flummoxed as to why she would a) physically assault a rapist rather than report him or #metoo -ing him and again b) why wouldn’t you confirm you had the right guy before the assault.
Thank you Maggie. I like different perspectives and appreciate reading yours.
I agree about the heroine being a mess, but I felt she fixed herself fast enough for me, I did not notice such a difference to other women in romance I read about who are judgy and aggressive as a starting point. I do not have a lot of tolerance for it unless they snap out of it fast enough. She did.
And I liked the hero, and his journey in the book. Realizing that he wanted it all his way and why that would not work to make him happy going forward, that was interesting.
I guess I am used to her writing voice which I still like.
I was fairly late to the SEP party; I didn’t start reading her books until about five years ago. Started with It Had to Be You which wasn’t the best introduction. As I remember it, the heroine was generally treated badly and the reference to a certain yuppie really didn’t age well. The only other Chicago Stars books I’ve read are Natural Born Charmer (which didn’t make a huge impression on me other than the heroine starting the book in a beaver suit) and First Star I See Tonight which was far sillier and I liked it a lot better. But my favourite book by SEP is First Lady. Even though the widowed virgin is not a trope I’m particularly fond of, I am a big fan of road trip romances.
I love all the Stars books, some more than others. Natural Born Charmer’s shines because of the OTHER characters in the book. I love Jack, April, and Jack’s daughter, Riley. The sense of the family you make is so lovely in that book.