As Meg Cabot:

The Princess Diaries: Book One

As Patricia Cabot:

An Improper Proposal

Kiss the Bride

Lady of Skye

Portrait of My Heart

Where Roses Grow Wild

The Boy Next Door
by Meggin Cabot
(Avon, $13.95, PG) ISBN 0-06-009619-5
The Boy Next Door is just about the cutest book I have ever read. In the hands of Princess Diaries author Meggin Cabot (aka Meg Cabot and Patricia Cabot), Chick Lit has been transformed into a series of adorable, witty e-mails that tell the story of a spunky small-town girl who finds her Prince Charming in the Big Apple while also vanquishing a nasty villain along the way. Cabot has married her YA fairy-tales with adult contemporary romance, and the result is a frothy concoction that charms but leaves little impression.

A surly computer-generated e-mail informs Melissa “Mel” Fuller that she is been late for her job as gossip columnist for The New York Journal for the 37th time this year. Despite the complaints of Mel’s exasperated boss, Mel does have a good reason for being tardy. This morning she heard her elderly neighbor’s dog barking and subsequently discovered Mrs. Friedlander unconscious in her apartment. Mel had to wait for the police and ambulance to arrive, making her late once again. Now Mel feels responsible for Paco the Great Dane, as well as Mrs. Friedlander’s two cats. But she can’t continue to care for them if she wants to keep her job - and she needs her job so she doesn’t have to move back to her hometown of Lansing, Illinois, population 13,000. Mrs. Friedlander’s only living relative seems to be her nephew, Max, a fashion photographer. So Mel contacts Max, assuming that he will fulfill his familial duty and come to his Aunt’s aid.

Unfortunately, Max is a self-centered playboy who is more interested in vacationing with a supermodel than helping out the old biddy. But he has the perfect solution. His old college friend, John Trent, owes him a big favor, so Max calls in his marker, demanding that John impersonate him for a while until his Aunt either wakes up or dies. John reluctantly agrees. Then he meets Mel, who thinks he’s Max, and falls deeply in love. It’s so refreshing to be with her because, unlike those fortune-hunters he is used to, Mel doesn’t realize that John is one of the multi-millionaire Trents. She actually likes him for himself, she shares his love for weather disasters and Stephen King novels, and she’s nice. John knows that he has to tell Mel the truth about his little deception, but he just can’t find the right opportunity.

Of course you know what will happen. The secret will come out, Mel will cry foul, John will win her back and they’ll ride off into the sunset. Cabot doesn’t even pretend that her plot is anything other than a fairy tale, but she brings it into the 21st century by utilizing e-mails to narrate the entire story. There are e-mails between Mel and her best friend Nadine, between John and his stuffy brother Jason, between Nadine and her restaurant-owner fiancé Tony, between the stalwart John and hedonistic Max - well, you get the idea. The messages are funny, wacky and clever, and they advance the plot merrily along. The best e-mails are among Mel’s co-workers, who gleefully soak up every detail of her budding romance while pretending that they are keeping her secrets safe (and pretending to work as well).

Unfortunately, the book’s structure leaves little room for character development, as none of the e-mails allow the players to show much depth or growth. Mel is the ingénue, Nadine is the wacky best friend, John is the Prince and Max is the odious villain. Also, while Mel tells Nadine about her feelings for John, and John shares his excitement about finding the perfect girl with his brother and sister-in-law, there are very few e-mails between the hero and heroine themselves. So the reader never gets a good sense of how they are together (other than perfect, of course) and is therefore not really invested in their relationship. You keep reading because you want to reach the next joke, not because you’re worried about the fate of Mel and John.

But there is no doubt that Cabot is a clever and talented author who knows how to get satisfy the target audience of Chick Lit readers. I was charmed even as I acknowledged the book’s weaknesses. I particularly appreciated Mel’s method of revenge when she discovers John’s deception. She may be a sweet Midwestern girl, but she has obviously learned how to fight dirty in the Big Apple.

If I were 15 years younger I probably would be more enthusiastic in my recommendation of The Boy Next Door, and in fact I’m tempted to hand it over to my adolescent daughter (although a few PG-rated jokes give me second thoughts about that idea). It’s cute and it’s hip and although I’m no longer either one of those things, I enjoyed it. Without the narrative gimmick, it would probably be no more than a fair-to-middling story, but until e-mail novels become all the rage, it is distinct enough to qualify as an above-average read.

By the way, Ms. Cabot, it’s Princess Leia who says “I love you” and Han Solo who says “I know,” not the other way around. And that exchange took place in The Empire Strikes Back, not Return of the Jedi - sheesh, you youngsters just have no clue about 1980s cultural references!

--Susan Scribner

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