Counterfeit Secretary, by Susan Napier

>> Monday, February 05, 2007

Believe it or not, I picked this one for the title. I'd decided I wanted something quick and easy, so I was looking through my Susan Napier stash, and when I saw the title, Counterfeit Secretary, I wondered just what could be counterfeit about a secretary. And then I had to read it to find out, didn't I?

Ria was tired of leading a double life.

James Everett, the domineering head of Everett communications, had never found a secretary who could meet his impossible standards- not until Ria came along.

James demanded cool efficiency and exclusive loyalty from a secretary so Ria donned spectacles and learned to blend in with the sleek office furniture. But she couldn't escape her boss's notice.

As James became increasingly fascinated by his elusive secretary, Ria found herself responding to him with a long-dormant passion. As their attraction grew, she wondered what James, a confirmed bachelor, would think when he discovered she was a warmhearted, tempestuous woman, the widowed mother of twins- and very much in love.
Quite nice. In fact, if I'd read it back when it was first published, in 1985 (if I hadn't been 8 years old at the time, that is), I would have loved it. The initial set-up does date it a bit, but on the whole, I think it would hold up pretty well even today. A B.

So what about that counterfeit thing? No, Ria isn't a fake secretary, or anything like that. What's counterfeit is her attitude and her looks. After overhearing James Everett discussing with a friend his requirements in a secretary (apparently, the guy had had trouble with them throwing themselves at him), Ria decided to make herself into that perfect secretary. Pretty stereotypical stuff... hair pulled back tight, spray-on colour to make her red hair look mousy brown, glasses... that kind of thing. Plus, of course, the icy, unflappable attitude.

Why all the effort? Now, this I did like: it's simple, the job pays good money, and the hours are predictable. Perfect for a widow with two kids to raise, so for that, it's worth it to hide her warm personality. Of course, Ria gets the job and for three years, she's the perfect secretary for James. In turn, the job works out fine for her. She doesn't even really mind that as far as James is concerned, she might as well be part of the furniture. She's making inroads into her mortgage and is home in time to spend some quality time with the kids, and as for emotional fulfilment, she gets it outside of work, so all's well with her.

But then several things happen, and James starts noticing Ria. And as he starts paying more attention to her, he likes what he sees, and so he begins a very persistent pursuit of her.

It doesn't really sound like a very good plot, but Napier gives little twists to the clich├ęs in ways that make them feel fresher and more palatable. Ria, for instance, is nothing like I would have expected from reading the blurb. She's an intelligent, competent, strong and pragmatic woman, too sensible to get a hopeless crush on an unattainable boss. She doesn't begin to feel attracted until James has proved that he isn't at all unattainable.

I also liked her history. Far from being a naive virgin who's convinced she's frigid, Ria is a widow who was very much in love with her husband. After his death, which happened not long after their twin sons were born, Ria invited her father-in-law, Paul, to live with them, and they have worked out a lifestyle that suits them. Ria is the breadwinner of the family, while Paul runs the house, cooks and makes sure the kids get to school... the kind of thing a stereotypical "mom" would be responsible for. And in addition, he gives Ria the unjudgmental support he needs. I liked the relationship between these two, and would have actually liked to see more.

But the relationship between James and Ria, once it heats up, is just as interesting. Even the boss/secretary relationship, that generally icks me out, is well done. First, I never got the feeling that the fact that James is her boss pressured Ria in any way. There's no feel of desperation here, of fear for her job. As I mentioned, Ria likes her job and finds it very convenient, but it's also clear to her that she has many other choices. She even tells James once that she's received many other advantageous offers while she's been working for him.

And second, it's also very clear that James has great respect for Ria and her abilities. In fact, at one point he tries to promote her to a pretty powerful and well-paid post (I also liked the reasoning behind her refusal of the promotion... she prefers to keep her secretary job so she can have the regular hours so she can spend time with the children, yes, but Napier allows her to feel regret that she can't accept. She's human, she does have ambitions, and would love the power and challenges that come with the new job).

James is less well-drawn than Ria, as is the usual for books written 20 years ago, in which you get the action from the heroine's point of view. Actually, here you do get some of James' thoughts, but it feels a bit awkward, because it's a couple of paragraphs sandwiched between all-Ria POV. It's a half-measure, and it doesn't work. Either give us his POV or don't, but don't do this in-between thing.

Apart from this, though, this is all pretty good. One of my favourite Napiers so far. I wouldn't want a regular diet of books like this, but every now and then, the simplicity and lack of complications outside of the very character-driven romance really hit the spot.

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