|Chances are that many romance readers have memories of being teased or bullied by the beautiful, popular kids in high school. So Susan Elizabeth Phillips takes a big risk by making the heroine of Ain’t She Sweet? a former rich bitch whose adolescent cruelty still haunts her victims. Sugar Beth Carey has reformed, but will her classmates ever forgive her? More importantly, will the reader? It’s been a long two years since Phillips’ last release but it’s safe to say she is still on top of her game, because she succeeds in making this former prima donna a character to care about, even if total absolution isn’t forthcoming.
Fifteen years ago, Sugar Beth Carey turned her back on everyone in Parish, Mississippi, including her boyfriend and the clique of popular girls that she ruled. She’s lived in California and Texas, but has now slunk home a poorer and wiser woman. Three failed marriages, the death of both parents, and the cold hard reality of the big world have mellowed the woman who was once the Princess of Parish. She has come back to make amends for her sins, but there’s more than repentance on her mind. An elderly aunt has recently died and left Sugar Beth the contents of her small cottage, including a priceless painting. Finding where her Aunt Tallulah stashed the painting is Sugar Beth’s primary goal, but her desperate search isn’t about regaining her wealthy lifestyle. Her motives are actually noble, but Sugar Beth won’t tell anyone else why she needs the money, preferring to let people think the worst of her.
Two former targets of Sugar Beth’s cruelty are particularly gleeful to see her return with her tail between her legs. Winnie Davis Gallantine was Sugar Beth’s classmate and the victim of almost unspeakable cruelty at her hands. After mooning over Sugar Beth’s boyfriend, Ryan, for years, she married him after he was dumped by Sugar Beth, but Winnie knows she’s a consolation prize at best. Becoming wealthy and the new social leader of Parrish hasn’t cured Winnie’s core of insecurity; in order to heal, she yearns to confront Sugar Beth and tear her down to size.
Colin Byrne was a young teacher who came to Parish from England to work on his writing career, only to find himself fired because of Sugar Beth’s malicious lies. He eventually cleared his name and returned to his adopted home town, but he too never forgave Sugar Beth, and he sets into motion a plan to ensure her complete and utter humiliation.
Sugar Beth’s desire for repentance clashes with Winnie and Colin’s need for vengeance with unexpected results. Winnie is forced to re-evaluate her relationship with Ryan and their teenage daughter Gigi, while Colin finds that revenge is bittersweet once he learns the truth about the past 15 years of Sugar Beth’s life. But even if forgiveness is offered, Sugar Beth may not be ready to accept it.
As a former geek, I had a hard time warming up to the Poor Little Mean Girl plotline. Phillips does her best to explain the emotional trauma from Sugar Beth’s childhood that caused her rotten behavior (Daddy issues – surprise!), but I couldn’t quite bring myself to root for her wholeheartedly, even when she accepts the punishment she deserves without flinching. I give Phillips credit for moving beyond the poor misunderstood heroines she has employed in the past. Unlike Rachel in Dream a Little Dream, this heroine really was responsible for all of the horrible actions she’s accused of by the hero. Phillips hints at but never fully explores Sugar Beth’s third marriage to a wealthy older man who helped her realize the error of her ways, but more information on the turning points that changed her would have helped the reader to understand the transformation.
Colin Byrne is an interesting character, but I don’t believe his purple velvet smoking jacket and dandified ways ever would have been accepted in a small Mississippi town. He seems to have wandered into the story from another book, and his purported strong friendship with Ryan Gallantine rings false. Yet his interactions with Sugar Beth are the best part of the book, giving Phillips plenty of opportunities to demonstrate her skill at verbal foreplay. (“Your talent for obfuscation continues to amaze me.” “Hey, I haven’t obfuscated in weeks. Makes you go blind.”)
There are several engaging subplots in the novel as Winnie and Ryan struggle to re-define their marriage, daughter Gigi grapples with her own high school headaches and Winnie and Sugar Beth come face to face (imagine Dynasty’s Joan Collins and Linda Evans without the shoulder pads) to reach a surprising accommodation. Ain’t She Sweet? has Phillips’ trademark vitality and energy that draw the reader into the story even if some of the characters are not fully convincing. I take one point off for including an unnecessary homely dog (Jennifer Crusie did it first, and better). Also, Chicago resident Phillips makes a valiant effort but doesn’t quite nail the Southern lifestyle as successfully as Dixie natives such as Deborah Smith.
Phillips begins each chapter with a quote from a Georgette Heyer novel. Not being a Regency fan, I can’t attach any deep significance to the quotes, but they indicate that Ain’t She Sweet? is a comedy of manners that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But although she never fails to entertain, Phillips also makes her readers examine the depth of their own capacity for forgiveness, and reminds us that it’s never too late to start being a better person. Tie those lessons up with great chemistry and witty dialogue and you’ve got a winning package.