Ain't She Sweet, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

>> Thursday, June 30, 2005

I'm probably the only Susan Elizabeth Phillips fan who likes her latest books even more than her earlier ones. I've been saving Ain't She Sweet, waiting for the right moment. It arrived when SEP was chosen the author of the month in one of my romance groups.

Ain't She Sweet?
Not exactly . . .

The girl everybody loves to hate has returned to the town she'd sworn to leave behind forever. As the rich, spoiled princess of Parrish, Mississippi, Sugar Beth Carey had broken hearts, ruined friendships, and destroyed reputations. But fifteen years have passed, and life has taught Sugar Beth its toughest lessons. Now she's come home -- broke, desperate, and too proud to show it.

The people of Parrish don't believe in forgive and forget. When the Seawillows, Sugar Beth's former girlfriends, get the chance to turn the tables on her, they don't hesitate. And Winnie Davis, Sugar Beth's most bitter enemy, intends to humiliate her in the worst possible way.

Then there's Colin Byrne. . . . Fifteen years earlier, Sugar Beth had tried to ruin his career. Now he's rich, powerful, and the owner of her old home. Even worse, this modern-day dark prince is planning exactly the sort of revenge best designed to bring a beautiful princess to her knees.

But none of them have reckoned on the unexpected strength of a woman who's learned survival the hard way.

While Sugar Beth's battered heart struggles to overcome old mistakes, Colin must choose between payback and love. Does the baddest girl in town deserve a second chance, or are some things beyond forgiving?

Ain't She Sweet? is a story of courage and redemption. . . of friendship and laughter. . . of love and the possibility of happily-ever-after.
Stories about the heroine coming back to the small town she left years before, swearing never to come back, are very definitely not among my favourite plots. But dodgy-sounding plots are par for the course for SEP, and she's managed to make me love too many of them for me to even think of avoiding Ain't She Sweet. And right I was: this was an A-.

You know those books which have everyone, especially the hero, trying to make the heroine's life hell, usually because they believe she's an evil bitch who deserves it, probably because of some misunderstanding or other? Even when I hate those books, I can't help but be manipulated into feeling this lump in my throat at the way she's mistreated. Even if she's stupidly and needlessly putting herself in a vulnerable position because martyrhood seems to be her calling, I feel that. There's this "oooh, when you realize she's actually good, you're going to be sorry!" element there that gets me every time, even if part of me is angry at the manipulation.

That's how I felt the entire first part of Ain't She Sweet (I thought of using the acronym ASS, but I don't think that would work. Author's should think of this before choosing a title for their books!). All the while Sugar Beth was being tortured by the entire town, led by Colin, I kept wanting to cry. And loving it.

It worked. Why?

Number one: because the reason why Sugar Beth was back in Parrish and had to stay there for a while, thus putting herself in that vulnerable position, made sense. This was a place she despised, a place where everyone despised her, so giving her a good reason to do this was basic. Too often, in cases like this one, I want to shake the heroine or hero and tell them that if this is such a horrible place, why aren't they already 50 miles away?

Number two: Sugar Beth did deserve some torture, even if she was now a good person. She truly was a bitch when she was young. This is not a poor young woman who really did nothing to earn people's hate. It wasn't all a misunderstanding. No one set her up to take the blame for horrible things, she really did them. She made people's life miserable and she enjoyed wielding her power. She did have some twinges of guilt, which made her more human (as in that horrific scene with Winnie in the changing rooms), but mostly she was a cruel, unfeeling bitch.

Number three: The whole "let's drag Sugar Beth in the mud" went on just long enough. When it would have become overkill, when I would have started to really resent her torturers for being immature children who were too hung up on what happened in high school and who had gone even lower than Sugar Beth had ever done, things lightened up.

Colin, especially, had no stomach for cruelty and immediately saw through Sugar Beth's insistence that she was the same selfish little girl she was all those years ago. And it worked wonderfully well because Sugar Beth never did anything to convince him, she actually tried to play up her bitch side, and he still saw right through it.

And Sugar Beth herself was amazing. There's nothing I like more than a tortured heroine, even more than a tortured hero. I love imperfect heroines, heroines with real baggage, heroines with pasts that are far from snow white. And that's Sugar Beth to a "T".

After that humourless, boring twit, Jenny, from the book I'd just finished, this woman was a joy to read. She was fun, she was interesting, she was a little (big) bit bent, and she was a truly good person underneath all those vices she flaunted. By the end of the book, you do understand why she was that way as a young girl, the baggage she had, but even all those years later, when she's grown up and changed from the person she was back then, she never, ever tries to excuse herself. She takes full responsibility for everything she ever did.

While Sugar Beth was the main character in this book, Colin was a strong hero. He was really fun to read, I loved his quirks and his sarcasm and the way he truly appreciated Sugar Beth in her entirety, never wanting to change what she was. If there's any criticism I can level at this book it's that as much as I loved Sugar Beth, I was left wanting with Colin. He's got some issues of his own which I thought were a bit shortchanged.

As always with SEP, there are some interesting secondary storylines. Sugar Beth's relationship with her sister, Winnie, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the book. Nothing is easy for them, and their rapprochement is very slow and complicated, which made their reconciliation believable.

And Winnie's relationship with her own husband, Sugar Beth's old boyfriend, was great, too. It reminded me a bit of the story of Cal's parents in Nobody's Baby But Mine, an apparently successful marriage of many years which hides some serious issues.

This has been an excellent ending to an excellent reading month!


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