First Lady, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

>> Wednesday, July 16, 2003

I mentioned how after reading the latest Susan Elizabeth Phillips book, Breathing Room, I was tempted to try First Lady, which hadn't looked too good when I read its review. I finally did it this last weekend.

Daughter of a powerful politician and widow of an assassinated president, Cornelia (Nealy) Litchfield Case has spent her entire life under Secret Service and media scrutiny. When her father insists that she continue the first lady's social duties for the new bachelor president, she instead resolves to break out of her glamorous prison and live life as a normal American. She knows that she can't elude the Secret Service forever, but every moment of anonymity is priceless.

Mat Jorik is a pushover for a female in trouble. When his ex-wife dies and leaves him her two daughters, he agrees to drive them from the East Coast to their grandmother's Iowa home. They haven't gone far when he takes pity on another female and offers her a ride in return for her care of the baby and teenager. Nealy accepts his offer. Little does she know when she climbs into the Winnebago that she's about to lose her heart to two kids and a handsome man who she thinks is a steelworker. When Nealy discovers his real job, Mat may wish he'd confessed earlier. In the meantime, they're off on an adventure, the likes of which Nealy's never had before. But the Secret Service is hot on Nealy's trail and despite her best efforts, she's bound to be caught. The question is, what will happen to this slapdash family when they're found?
Ok, first of all, the back blurb (which I wasn't able to find online to put above), made me laugh. The first lady of the US the most famous woman in the world? Nope, I don't think so. Her husband might be the most famous man (and I said "might". I'm not too sure if there aren't some actors with more fame!), but most people outside the US couldn't pick the US first lady out in a line-up. I probably wouldn't recognize her if I passed her in the street, and I'm pretty well-informed!

That out of the way, onto the story. Grading it was problematic. I loved this book, but the setup, what got the whole story in motion, was flawed. Are we supposed to believe that someone like Nealy, who ends up in a high government post, is completely unable to stand up to her father? That the only way she finds to get away from her job as first lady is to run away, putting quite a few jobs in danger? This simply isn't the Nealy we see in the rest of the story, and it's what keeps First Lady out of an A-range grade. My final grade is a B+.

Sometimes it feels like SEP is the only contemporary romance author that hasn't gone the Romantic Suspense way. Everyone else has added some type of suspense subplot to their books, but not her, which is something I appreciate. I do read some Romantic Suspense, but I often wish to read something good that's plain romance, and finding a single-title like that is mission impossible. SEP's books concentrate on the relationship, and though there is always some kind of plot outside of it, I never have to worry her protagonists are suddenly going to be chased by terrorists, or attacked by some homicidal maniac.

The relationship in FL was nice and very fun to read. If I forget my problems with Nealy's primary motivation, her personality from there on was great. She refused to take any shit from anyone, and it was fun to see her genuine delight in being able to be as rude as she wanted. However, I had a little problem with how she simply refused to consider having anything to do with Mat after he confessed he was a journalist, but I suppose her past experiences would explain it.

I liked Mat, too, and understood his wish to be unfettered by any family. His horror at the way a full-blown family (first kids, then a wife -pregnant-, then grandparents!) seemed to be springing up around him was great fun to watch. He fought it, but turned around well.

I'm usually not really into kids in my novels, but I loved Lucy and even -god help me!- the terminally cute, saccharine-sweet Button. Lucy was heart-rending, behind her tough-girl façade, and I enjoyed Button mostly because of the way Mat and Nealy reacted to her, how Mat considered her a Demon, for instance ;-)

I've used the word "fun" a lot in the paragraphs above, and it's not by chance. That's the best world for this book. I adore SEP's sense of humour. She makes me laugh out loud, both with the situations she sets up and with her way of describing things.

I even enjoyed the epilogue, flag-waving as it was. And this reminds me to mention that the author was very careful not to put in anything political here. Or rather, nothing partisan. Through Cornelia, SEP does give us her opinions on what public service should be, and all that, but she doesn't tell us what party Nealy is, and even her politics are "quirky", as Mat says: some left-wing, some right, some middle-of-the-road. I think there ara a couple of hints, so I suppose someone who knows more than I do about US politics could deduce her party. I can make an educated guess, but I'm not 100% sure.

As I said about Breathing Room, I'm probably one of the few people who prefer the latest SEP books to the first. I'm looking forward to her next.

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