Breathing Room, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

>> Monday, June 23, 2003

The next book I read was Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Breathing Room.

Lorenzo (Ren) Gage is a devilishly handsome movie star, best known for his villainous roles onscreen and his playboy antics off. Isabel Favor is a tightly wound self-help guru and author of The Four Cornerstones of a Favorable Life whose own perfect life has recently come crashing down around her. Both have come to Italy to escape the endless rehashes of their latest misfortunes in the public eye, and the equally endless drone of self-criticism.

Ren and Isabel meet under what can only be described as unusual circumstances, leaving each of them thinking, thankfully, they'll never see the other again. Imagine their surprise when Isabel turns up on Ren's doorstep, her much anticipated rental villa belonging to none other than her ill-advised one-night stand. As might be anticipated, their fiery antagonism soon breeds sparks of a different kind.

Meanwhile, at the villa, all is not as it seems, and the two lovers find themselves playing amateur detectives, trying to untangle the strange behavior of the townspeople and of Ren's hired caretaker. As if things weren't complicated enough, Ren's ex-wife, Tracy, suddenly appears on the scene pregnant and with several kids in tow, ushering in a subplot centering on the nature of marriage in the real world.

I've seen this book blasted so often in message boards, that I approached it with trepidation. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was a keeper for me. My grade is an A+, and it's one of the best books I've read this year, and one my fave SEPs so far.

I haven't heard of anyone online that actually liked Isabel, but I did, very much. Yes, she was a bit irritating, with her guru-speak and her praying everywhere and her insistence on always doing the right thing, but she meant well, and I appreciated how hard she worked, faced with horrible circumstances, to stay true to her convictions. Best of all, she wasn't at all judgemental of other people.

And BTW, about the praying and the fact that she called God "She": I was ok with that, even though I'm an agnostic who's not fond of organized religion. I think the fact that she emphasized spirituality and not religion per se, and the fact that her beliefs weren't exactly mainstream was what made it all palatable to me.

Another complaint I've heard is about SEP preaching at us. I don't know, maybe she did, a bit, but I think the preaching was mostly part of Isabel's characterization. And remember, when she got too preachy, Ren was always there to bring her back to Earth. Oh, I loved Ren! Cultured, bad boy Ren, wounded but not even knowing the wound still hurt.

I just adored Isabel and Ren together, the way thy bantered and how Ren teased Isabel and how he starts feeling attracted to her "goodness" despite himself. The book shone when showing us the characters falling in love with each other, something I always enjoy. SEP made me believe they were in love and perfect for each other.

I also liked the secondary characters and their "marriage in trouble" story. The 4 kids bothered me a bit (brats, the lot of them, except maybe for poor Steffie!), but the scenes where Tracy and Harry come clean about how they really feel about each other more than made up for this.

I loved the Tuscan setting, almost a character in itself, and I even enjoyed the "mystery" subplot, which I'm not going to spoil for you. SEP's timing was perfect with it. It stayed in the background most of the first part of the book, and we had only enough hints to make me intrigued about what was going on. When it came a bit more to the forefront, near the end, it never overpowered the romance (always a danger), but created a backdrop for it.

[Incidentally, e-mail me if you can think of other titles with a mystery subplot. Not a suspense subplot, with a villain after the protagonists, but one where they have to solve a mystery, one which is important to them but isn't life or death. Something like All Night Long, for instance.]

The ending, even the epilogue... awww!! I mean this in the best of senses, and keep in mind I have a low tolerance for schmaltz.

All in all, I really do think SEP is getting better and better. I'll have to see if I like First Lady better than most people do. I'm hopefull!

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