Before you start to think, ďHo-hum, another of TRRís annual five-heart reviews of a new Susan Elizabeth Phillips book...Ē -- yawn -- let me assure you Iím no push-over.
I have a love/hate relationship with SEP (an indication of her preeminent status is that she can be identified by initials alone). Unlike her many fans who love her to pieces, I love her in pieces. I love her smart, sassy heroines. I love her larger-than-life, damn-the-torpedoes, I-wannabe-left-alone heroes. I love the sexual tension she creates between them. I love her humor. I love her solid character development. I love her sharp dialogue. I love her sweet, sexy love scenes. I love her right-on depiction of contemporary language and manners. Thereís no question that she is one of the most talented authors the romance genre currently boasts.
But time after time, Iíve been disappointed in her plots. Upper crusty British lady wants to avoid dukeís attention by being naughty with dumb jock. No thank you. Really really really smart scientist wants to dumb down her kid by getting dumb jock to supply the sperm. Double no thank you.
I have been impatiently waiting for an SEP book with a plot worthy of her talent. In First Lady, she finally has it.
Cornelia Case is the First Lady. She has been living with the restrictions imposed by high political office most of her life -- first as the daughter of the vice president, then as wife of the recently assassinated president. The new president, the former vice president, is a widower. At his request and under pressure from her father, she has continued her duties as First Lady. Now, however, Nealy is desperate for a little freedom and concocts a plan to secretly escape the White House.
She has planned every detail down to buying a nondescript used car, cheap clothing, and a disguise. Everything goes smoothly until she stops at a truck stop and leaves the car keys in the ignition. When she returns, she finds her car, and most of her money, has been stolen.
Mat Jorik is a journalist who needs one good story to return to newspaper writing after a disastrous experience with TV tabloid journalism. In her will, his ex-wife had named him the father of her two daughters and their guardian even though he is not their biological father and had not seen her in years. He has come to Pennsylvania determined to avoid all responsibility for them, but the necessary legal procedures complicate matters. As the older brother and substitute father for seven younger sisters, he wants no part of any more children, particularly female children.
He finds the two girls at home alone -- Lucy, a sullen, resentful teenager with a dirty mouth and a bad attitude, and an infant whom Lucy only identifies as Butt. Because he cannot leave them on their own and knows how poor foster care can be, he eventually decides to drive the girls to their grandmother in Iowa in the rattletrap motor home his ex-wife had named Mabel. He takes back roads to avoid police who might be looking to stop him from removing the girls from the state.
They stop at the same truck stop and park next to Nealyís car. When Nealyís car is stolen, Mat decides that this stranded woman who identifies herself as Nell Kelly should accompany Mat and the girls to Iowa.
As should be anticipated with any SEP novel, the trip goes anything but smoothly. While the FBI and the Secret Service launch a massive hunt for the missing First Lady, Nealy has a chance to lead a life without privilege and with all the anonymous common experiences sheís craved -- like picnics and shopping at Walmart. Lucy tries to slow their arrival in Iowa for her own reasons, and Butt attaches herself to the hostile Mat.
How long can Nealy avoid detection? What will happen when Mat learns who she really is? What will become of the girls?
First Lady has everything I like about a Susan Elizabeth Phillips book. The characters are wonderful -- fully developed is an understatement. Nealy is a caring, responsible woman whose repressed life has left her wounded and vulnerable. She relishes experiences most of us take for granted. Readers who envy the lives of those in the public eye may rethink their opinions when they see the constant pressures on her. Mat is a guys-only kind of guy who is really at heart attuned to women and family life. Thereís no doubt that heís going to find himself surrounded by females again, but itís fun to see him trying to resist.
Like most teenagers, Lucyís enough to drive anyone crazy, but sheís seen too much of the seamier side of life and has a strong streak of responsibility. Butt is a rare infant in fiction -- sheís not one of those baby characters who could pose for a Gerber ad -- but as Mat eventually learns, itís impossible to resist her. Even the secondary characters come alive in a way that most authors canít touch.
What distinguishes First Lady from other SEP books is the plot. The reason Nealy continues as First Lady after the death of her husband seems contrived, but once she and everyone else get on the road things just roll along. With the three of the four main characters in First Lady virtually strangers to each other, there is ample opportunity for conflict. The big questions facing Nealy and Mat arenít easily answered, and fortunately things donít fall quickly and neatly into place. Furthermore, as the mother of babies who ďurpídĒ on road trips, I feel vindicated that a romance hero and heroine have to deal with the same mess!
Every SEP book has at least one scene that touches my heart and that I end up rereading several times.. In First Lady itís the scene near the end of the book where Mat tells Nealy he loves her. Ah, if only it could happen to all of us like that just once....
Even though itís early in the new year, I feel confident in predicting that First Lady will be a nominee for Best Contemporary Romance of 2000. Itís that good. You donít want to miss it.