Ain't She Sweet

Breathing Room

Dream a Little Dream

First Lady

Kiss An Angel

Lady Be Good

Match Me If You Can

Nobody's Baby But Mine

This Heart of Mine

Natural Born Charmer
by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
(Wm. Morrow, $24.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-06-073457-4
The message of Natural Born Charmer is that even victims of bad parenting can find a happily ever after. We’re expected to ignore the fact that these characters’ personal lives are train wrecks and years of intense therapy are probably in their future – it’s fiction so, of course, the worst problems can be solved by dancing barefoot in the grass.

Blue Bailey was raised by a succession of good-intentioned but minimally committed substitute parents. Her mother Virginia, an international peace activist, was too involved in saving the world one cause at a time to be bothered by the needs of her own child. Blue has been working in a beaver costume as a living advertisement for a lumber yard. She is stomping down the road wearing the headless costume, aiming to kill her low-life boyfriend who got her this gig when she meets...

Dean Robillard, gorgeous hunk, underwear model, and star quarterback with the Chicago Stars. Dean, a secondary character in Match Me If You Can, is driving to East Tennessee to check out renovations to the farm he’s bought as a rural, get-back-to-nature retreat. He sees a headless beaver marching down the side of the road and can’t resist pulling over to investigate. Blue who’s down to her last $18 manages to attach herself to the obviously rich Dean. In return for this, she treats him to smart-mouth conversation and an unflattering portrait that causes him some introspection. Dean decides that she will be his first houseguest when he meets up with the elusive Susan O’Hara who has been supervising the renovations. When they arrive at the farm, he discovers that Susan O’Hara is really...

April Robillard, Dean’s mother. April had been a full and active participant in the culture of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. After she became pregnant with rock superstar Jack Patriot’s child, she refused to have an abortion and got dumped. She turned on and dropped out as her life went into a tailspin into drugs, alcohol, and indiscriminate sex. She has undertaken the work on his farm in order to make amends for the misery she inflicted on him for so many years. April is only the first of Dean’s blood relations to come to the farm because arriving soon will be...

Riley Patriot, Dean’s eleven-year-old half-sister, who desperately hopes that Dean will come to her rescue. Jack has given Riley scant more fatherly attention than the nothing he gave his son Dean. Riley’s mother inflicted her daughter with her neglectful, disinterested style of mothering, and the girl has horrible self-esteem, self-image problems. Now, however, her mother has died, and Riley embarks on a dangerous journey out of desperation to seek the brother she’s never met. With so many family members already on the scene, it’s only a matter of time before...

Jack Patriot shows up, too. He’s been given a second chance at rectifying his years of relationship mistakes. The years of rock superstardom – the curse of too much fame, money, and eager, willing groupies – have begun to leave him dissatisfied. Staying at the farm while doing construction work gives Jack an opportunity to reassess his life. Similarly caught in the detritus of past mistakes is...

Nita Garrison, the owner of the nearby town of Garrison, whose unwillingness to agree to deed changes is keeping the town from developing its tourist potential Nita is a lonely, embittered old woman.

Over the course of the next few weeks, they’ll all start seeing things in a whole new light.

If you read the blurb on Natural Born Charmer’s dust jacket, you’ll see that the hero and heroine are Blue and Dean. (They do seem to be a good match.) If you read the book, however, you may decide that the true heroine is Riley. This is a little girl who was born into fame and fortune but grew up in an emotionally deprived environment. Her childhood was a succession of psychological insults: her talents and abilities dismissed, her weaknesses over-emphasized. In a triumph of hope over experience, Riley searches out the only person she believes might help her and one she’s never met: Dean. That’s a heroine deserving of both sympathy and admiration. We can only hope that sometime she’ll find a hero worthy of her.

As is common in Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ books, a real strength is the dialogue between characters. It helps that Blue has a smart mouth because she gets some really good lines.

She gathered up her sketch pad, along with the beer. “Bottom line, you’re a man who lives to be adored, and I don’t do adoration.”

“Who says you’re not pretty?”

“Oh, it doesn’t bother me. I have so much character that adding beauty to the mix would be greedy. Honestly, until tonight, it hasn’t been an issue. Well, except for Jason Stanhope, but that was seventh grade.”

The author infuses many scenes with humor, but these characters’ lives are so messed up there’s a melancholy undertone to Natural Born Charmer. Nevertheless, the writing is vivid and assured, and the narrative flows smoothly. Susan Elizabeth Phillips has a well-deserved reputation as an author whose books never fail to please. Her newest will not disappoint her many fans.

--Lesley Dunlap

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