Jennifer Crusie is one of the few authors who isn’t afraid to portray mediocre sex between consenting adults. And, like the first several encounters between the hero and heroine, Faking It has some initial weaknesses and doesn’t immediately, um, satisfy. But, just as the sex gradually gets better, so does the novel, and both turn out to be well worth the effort.
Talk about your “meeting cute” - Tilda Goodnight and Davy Dempsey first bump into each other in the closet of a house belonging to wealthy Mason Phipps and his girlfriend Clea. Tilda is there to steal a painting that her niece mistakenly sold to Mason. Davy is there to steal millions of dollars that Clea cheated him out of (it was her million dollars originally, then he stole it, turned it into three million, and she stole it back…oh, never mind, it’s not important). One impulsive kiss later and Tilda and Davy are hooked, although neither are in the market for a love affair.
The last thing Tilda needs is a relationship with a handsome, charming stranger. She’s the sane, practical member of a cheerfully dysfunctional family who live together in a large Columbus, Ohio building upstairs from a dingy art gallery. Tilda’s sister, Eve, is a pretty blonde with an alternate personality, Louise, who is as wild as Eve is prim. Tilda’s mother, Gwen, half-heartedly manages the art gallery while sublimating her own passions into needlepoint and word puzzles. Tilda supports them, as well as her niece Nadine and Dorcas, the crusty artist-in-residence, by painting murals for wealthy individuals. Everything is copasetic, if not sublime, until Nadine opens up a can of worms by selling a painting that never should have seen the light of day.
Now Tilda can’t shake Davy, who thinks that the two of them can work together for their mutual benefit. Tilda is suspicious of his offer, with good reason; Davy is a semi-reformed con man who made his living “defrauding people who defrauded other people out of their money.” Thanks in part to the example of his sister Sophie (heroine of Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation), he has gone straight, or as straight as a man can be who was taught to play three-card monte before he could walk. He can tell that Tilda is uptight and prickly, but there’s something about her that appeals to him. He suspects that there’s more to the Goodnight women than meets the eye, and he’s right - they’re all faking it in one way or another, lying to themselves and others about their true selves. It’s only when they dare to be authentic that their world opens up - and with it, the possibilities for love, success, and of course, world-class sex.
This isn’t my favorite Jennifer Crusie book - that honor goes to Welcome to Temptation or perhaps her first hardcover, Tell Me Lies. There are too many characters running around, all talking in the same ironic Chandler-from-Friends tone and using the same expressions, making it difficult to tell them apart. It feels as if there is barely any age difference among Gwen, her daughter Tilda and her granddaughter Nadine. And there is a strange lack of maternal bond between Gwen and her daughters - she loves them, but she never seems terribly concerned about them or shocked by their sexual shenanigans. The same can be said about Eve/Louise and her teenaged daughter Nadine.
The novel is not as well plotted as other Crusies. There is too little action until the very end, and the potential of having a charming con man as the leading man is underutilized for much of the story. Crusie’s constant use of song titles and movie quotes reads like lazy shorthand for the characters’ thoughts and emotions. And while Crusie’s novels are funny and sexy, they’re not particularly warm or sweet. The constant wise-cracking keeps the reader at a distance from the characters and makes it difficult to become fully engaged with their predicament.
And yet…there’s still a lot to appreciate about Faking It, starting with Crusie’s unique voice. No one else writes like she does - not Romance, not Women’s Fiction, but her own distinct, “bent” view of the world with its Runyonesque characters and arch dialogue. I like the way she shows that the sex between Tilda and Davy is awkward and disappointing until Tilda is ready to stop “faking it” in a variety of ways and let Davy see the real woman instead of her façade. And the novel’s last 50 pages are simply divine. The book’s climax includes secrets unveiled, plenty of action, and a screwball comedy scene that is reminiscent of the famous Stateroom Routine from the Marx Brothers’ classic Night at the Opera (I’m a big Marx Brothers fan, so I don’t make that comparison lightly). Although Tilda is a bit of a cipher throughout the story, the book’s final pages finally bring her personality to light and make her a much more sympathetic heroine.
While it took me a while to warm up to Faking It, I am grateful that Jennifer Crusie is still going strong, with her own distinctive view of love and sex. I get the feeling that she is still exploring the breadth and depth of her writing talent, and I suspect that we haven’t yet seen her best work.