There is a problem when the underlying theme of a book brings to mind The Stepford Wives, but that’s what happened while reading Wife in Disguise. The book is part of the Lone Star Canyon series and I'm in no hurry to pick up the rest of the titles.
The book opens with the heroine Josie Fitzgerald Scott getting into a serious auto accident. As Josie lies there believing she’s about to die, she realizes her one regret is the dissolution of her marriage and her last thought before losing consciousness is of her ex-husband Del.
Through the miracle of modern medicine, Josie does not die, but is forever changed. Her face has been made over by plastic surgery, and a cane supports her once athletic form. Josie’s personality has also changed. Her long and difficult recovery has given her time to examine herself, and she realizes she is a different person than the one she was during her turbulent marriage. Seeking closure, Josie returns to California to talk to Del and, she hopes, to put the past behind her for good.
What Josie doesn't count on is that Del won't recognize her in her altered state. When Josie arrives at Del’s construction company, he treats her as if she’s a stranger. So what does Josie do? Just what anyone would do, lie to him and pretend to be a woman named Rose. Josie feels bad about this, really she does, but it’s just that Del likes her so much better as Rose. She’s afraid if he finds out she’s really his ex-wife, he won't talk to her at all, especially after all the rotten things Del says about Josie when he thinks he’s talking to Rose.
It’s understandable why Del would like “Rose” better; she has matured since their divorce three years ago. Gone is the spoiled young woman who always had to have her way and who turned everything into a competition that she just had to win. Privately, Del has physical reasons for liking the difference as well. Josie was athletic; she never wore make-up, didn't like to dress up and kept her hair cut short. At one point Del describes Josie’s old figure as “too bony and muscular”.
The reader is then presented with all the things he likes about Rose. She has long hair, wears dresses, has a nice curvy figure, uses make-up and wants children. These types of comparisons are sprinkled liberally through the book, making it obvious that the new Josie is a big improvement. One can't help but get the feeling that now that she’s more feminine, Josie is a better person as well. It’s very disconcerting.
The whole idea that Del wouldn't recognize his wife after spending some time with her was a little implausible, even given the physical changes, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief. That is until the ubiquitous "old family friend" recognizes her immediately. I don't care how close this person was to Josie, it doesn't make sense, except as a clichéd plot device. That is exactly what the character of Annie Mae is, but thank heaven she’s there. If it weren't for her, Del and Josie would have spent the entire book worrying about whether the other one would really consider getting back together and being too scared to talk about it out loud. As only her type of character can do, Annie Mae knows the real problems behind Del and Josie’s marriage, each of their hidden personality flaws and the steps they need to take to get together. Add a little pep talk by Del’s mother Catherine, and the hero and heroine don't have to figure out anything for themselves.
One thing Wife in Disguise does right is the transformation of Josie’s personality. Through her accident, Josie learned there are other kinds of strength besides physical and that it is not a weakness to need people. She is a more sympathetic character because of her ability to see her own faults, and also that she is willing to change and overcome them. Her emotional growth was so much more important than the fluff physical changes and should have been given more prominence. Instead, the tone of the books is clearly one of “It’s nice that Josie matured emotionally, but we’re really glad she painted her nails and put on a dress.” Welcome to Stepford.