Simply Irresistible by Rachel Gibson
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-380-79007-6
***
Readers who have just devoured Susan Elizabeth Phillips' latest contemporary and can't wait for her next release might want to check out Simply Irresistible. Whether you like it or not may depend on whether you feel the book is Simply an Imitation of the beloved SEP.

While running away from her own wedding in a very tight pink dress, Geogeanne Howard just happens to jump into the car of John "The Wall" Kowalsky, star hockey player for the Seattle Chinooks. The owner of John's team is Georgeanne's jilted, rich and much older fiancÚ. Without any money of her own and without any relatives who care about her, Georgeanne begs John to let her stay with him until she can find her way back to her native Texas.

John finds Georgeanne's habit of chattering mindlessly annoying, but he can't help being attracted to her voluptuous figure and falling for the flirtatious manner that she employs to get what she wants. After a wild one night stand, John unceremoniously dumps her at the Seattle airport and walks away. Instead of going home to Texas, Georgeanne applies for a job at a local catering company, using her Martha Stewart-like charm school skills to finagle the job despite her lack of experience.

Flash forward six years. Georgeanne is no longer the airhead who relies on flirtation to survive. She's now a productive partner in the catering business and the single mother of a precocious six year old daughter, Lexie. Then abruptly a newly sober John walks back into her life and discovers quickly that his little romp with Georgeanne produced a child.

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar to you, join the club. Many of the SEP elements are here, including the misunderstood flighty heroine and the clueless jock hero. Georgeanne, with a few small adjustments, could easily be mistaken for Francesca from Fancy Pants. Even John and Georgeanne's first encounter bears more than a passing resemblance to the first fateful meeting between Fancy's Pants' Francesca and Dally. Unfortunately, first-time author Rachel Gibson is not yet as strong a writer as Susan Elizabeth Phillips. She hasn't yet learned to create flawed yet sympathetic characters. When we first meet Georgeanne, she is annoying and manipulative. Even the short prologue presenting the childhood dyslexia that made her feel like a failure and caused her to rely on her looks instead of her brains isn't enough to make us like her. Similarly, John comes across as a total jerk who drinks too much and sleeps with Georgeanne despite the fact that he really can't stand her.

When we see them again six years later, their characters are so vastly improved and reformed that they don't even seem like the same people. We miss the fun of watching the gradual transformation from flirt and jerk to genuine human beings. The rest of the book, in fact, is pretty tame in comparison to the first 90 pages, as Georgeanne and John find their way back to each other as parents of the adorable Lexie and then finally as lovers who care about each other.

Gibson does have some flair for screwball humor. The scene in which tough jock John plays Barbies with Lexie is priceless, and there were a few other occasions that elicited a chuckle. But too often the author tells about Georgeanne's or John's feelings instead of showing them. The jilted fiancÚ is underutilized. And the denouement, during a hockey game, does not generate the necessary suspenseful excitement

Maybe it's not fair to compare a novice author to a romance icon such as Susan Elizabeth Phillips. But Simply Irresistible is so obviously packaged and marketed to look like an SEP that it leaves me little choice. Rachel Gibson has talent; I'd try her next release without hesitation. But I hope the next one will look and read more like genuine Gibson, and less like faux Phillips.

--Susan Scribner


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