fiction · romance

It Had to Be You- Susan Elizabeth Phillips

So, approximately three million years ago, when I was naively and optimistically making out my lists for this year’s reading challenges (LOLSOB), I perused the suggestions for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt for a romance starring a single parent. I didn’t find anything there that struck my fancy, but another group suggested It Had To Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (Avon, first published 1994. Remember this). I’d never read this particular author, but I know she’s a big name in romance, so I figured sure, why not. I went into this knowing full well that romance has changed immensely since 1994 (THANK GOD), but also curious because my library copy was almost pristine. This book is still very much in print, to the point that new copies are being purchased and circulating. This is important to my review. Buckle up, folks. I don’t usually eviscerate novels, but this one deserves it.

(Disclaimer: This book, and thus this post, is chock-full of content warnings. The book contains mentions, often graphic, of molestation and rape by a family member, racism, misogyny, multiple uses of the N-word, fatphobia and comments on eating disorders that haven’t aged well, kinky sex roleplay that involves one partner pretending to be an underage girl BUT WITHOUT INFORMING THE READER THAT THIS IS ROLEPLAY UNTIL AFTERWARDS, emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, alcoholism, a mistaken abduction and sexual assault that briefly traumatizes a main character, a drunk driving death, and multiple depictions of Donald Trump where he’s portrayed true to life, being only too happy to help pull one over a main character. This is a tough time for all of us and we’ve all got far too much on our plates. I won’t be offended one bit if you’re not able to handle more and need to stop reading here. Be well, friends.)

It Had to Be You starts out with Phoebe Sommerville attending her father’s funeral in a wildly inappropriate outfit and holding her toy poodle, who then pees all over the top of the casket (yes, really), but before that unfortunate incident comes this line, which tipped me off to exactly the kind of mess this book was going to be:

Beads of perspiration from the midday heat glimmered on skin that ranged in color from a glistening blue-black to a suntanned white. Like plantation slaves, the National Football League’s Chicago Stars had come to pay homage to the man who owned them.

Uh, yikes. Followed by this super fun typo (how has no one noticed this in all the time this book has been in print?):


A Gold Coast socialite, who fancied herself an expert on small dogs, since she owned a shiatsu…

Let’s try this again.

Shih-Tsu:

Shiatsu:

Two very, very different things. If anyone’s looking for a copy editor, I’d make an awesome one! 😉

Dad, who was a disgusting Donald Trump-style blowhard misogynist creep, owned the Chicago Stars football team (located in, surprisingly, the county I live in, and about which the author makes some seriously puzzling statements about tractor pulls and religious crusades, by which I’m guessing she meant revivals? I can’t speak to those- there are sections of this county that can be pretty Christian [looking at you, Wheaton] so I can’t say what happened here in that regard in 1994- but I asked my husband, who grew up here, about tractor pulls, and he was baffled. Outside of county fairs, I can’t find any evidence of tractor pulls here in the past. So weird. We’re right next to Chicago, it’s not like we’re super rural), and has left the team to his daughter Phoebe in order to humiliate her. If she’s able to help the team win the championship, she’ll get it keep it, but if not, ownership goes to her rapey cousin Reed, her father’s clear favorite. Phoebe’s also left with custody of her standoffish half-sister Molly, who’s trotted out now and then as a plot device.

At first, Phoebe doesn’t give a crap about the team, but the head coach, Dan Calebow, a good ol’ boy from Alabama (I think) isn’t having any of that. How DARE that bimbo act this way! He’s furious, furious enough to use the word bimbo at least nineteen times throughout this book (although the actual count may be several more, because I think I started counting after having been irritated by it multiple times. And no, Ms. Phillips, tempering it by having Dan call her ‘my brainy bimbo’ doesn’t make it better). Dan is a total alphahole, a complete 90’s romance man’s man, misogyny and grossness all over the place. He and his Congresswoman ex-wife have a friends-with-benefits relationship going on, leading to an early scene where Dan picks up a teenager from a convenience store, follows her to her house, then proceeds to spank her and have sex with her in her father’s office. It’s only AFTER the chapter has ended that Ms. Phillips clues us in that it’s actually Dan and his ex-wife ROLEPLAYING here and he’s not actually engaging in statutory rape. I was DISGUSTED by this, to the point where my hands were shaking and I had to read the scene twice to make sure I was reading it right- was he SERIOUSLY having sex with a girl who told him she was 16?!!?!?!?- and should have put the book down. NOT COOL, SUSAN ELIZABETH PHILLIPS. NOT COOL AT ALL. Alas, I read on, because the world needs to know how terrible this book is.

Phoebe, who has put on a show of being a dumb blonde most of her life, and Dan are obviously on an enemies-to-lovers trajectory, but before we get to that, we have the problem of Phoebe’s hips. They’re nearly their own character in this book. I wish I were joking:

Uh….okay.

There’s a lot of weird imagery in this book as well, along with fashion that was never, ever in style (and definitely not on gay men in the 90’s, which is who was wearing this particular get-up). Consider, if you will, these following paragraphs (which have nothing to do with each other, but which both include a lot of wtf):

Blond, handsome, and bigger than life, he looked like a born troublemaker. Instead of a knit shirt and chinos, he should have been wearing a rumpled white suit and driving down some Southern dirt road in a big old Cadillac hooking beer cans over the roof. Or standing on the front lawn of an antebellum mansion with his head thrown back to bay at the moon while a young Elizabeth Taylor lay on a curly brass bed upstairs and waited for him to come home.

Ignoring the fact that a grown man is littering and howling at the moon (what even?!??), with the white suit, all I can think of is Colonel Sanders from KFC. But then there’s Phoebe’s gay male friend in this outfit:

He wore a fitted black silk T-shirt with camouflage pants, orange leather suspenders, and motorcycle boots.

I know the 90’s weren’t exactly known for great fashion, but come on!

And there’s a lot of weird, puffed-up masculinity and misogyny. For example:

“…Bobby Tom’s from Telarosa, Texas, and being forced to live in the state of Illinois for even part of the year challenges his idea of manhood.”

Viktor beamed like a proud father, fluffed Phoebe’s hair, and nudged her toward the kitchen. “Do your women’s work. We men are hungry.”

He turned to Phoebe and held out his hand. “Pass over the keys, honey lamb. There are certain things a man still does better than a woman, and driving a car is one of them.”

Dan grinned as he unlocked the driver’s door and reached inside to flip the automatic locks. “Climb inside, ladies. I’d open the doors for you, but I don’t want to be accused of holding back anybody’s liberation.”

For one, I don’t think I can take seriously any grown man who goes by the name Bobby Tom, so he can take his idea that having a penis is only valid within the state borders of Texas and cram it up his cramhole. And come on, Phoebe, you let your friends talk to you like that? Nah, girl. You can do better. Have enough self-respect to shut that shit down hard. And later on, there was this gem:

Didn’t she realize this was DuPage County? Women didn’t dress like this in DuPage County, for chrissake. They went to church and voted Republican, just as their husbands told them.

EXCUSE ME??? This is a deeply diverse area, of which I’m very proud, and we have women from all walks of life, from women who show plenty of skin in the grocery store to women who wear niqab at the library. And we’re all perfectly capable of thinking for ourselves, thank you VERY much. UGH.

At one point, Phoebe goes over to Dan’s house late at night in an attempt to confront him, only to get caught in the middle of what Dan thinks is a kinky sex game with his ex-wife. Phoebe, who has no idea what kind of weird things Dan does with his ex, thinks Dan is hauling her into the woods to rape her, and the whole scene is horrifying. And then there’s more of this:

Just…why???

Phoebe and Dan develop a physical relationship (Phoebe is, of course, playing the whore to the Madonna preschool teacher that Dan is also seeing but not touching), but their relationship is…uncomfortable to read at best. Phoebe has some serious and understandable baggage from being raped and molested by her cousin in the past, but Dan isn’t aware of this until later, and there are some disturbing sex scenes where she tells Dan not to stop no matter what she says, then freaks out when he doesn’t stop, which, as both a reader and a woman, is deeply insulting.

Phoebe works hard and inspires the football team by instructing them to picture the other team naked (which is endlessly funny to the team and pisses Dan off), and of course they start to win and win big. But at the championship game, the one that matters, the crazed father of one of Dan’s former team members kidnaps Phoebe and threatens to kill her unless Dan throws the game. What’s a coach in love to do?

To be honest, this entire book was insulting, from Phoebe’s faux pre-drugs Anna Nicole Smith act, to Dan’s toxic masculinity and misogyny, to the disgusting abuse hurled about in memories of her father, to the completely unnecessary trauma scenes. Part of this is that this book is pretty geriatric when it comes to romance. Twenty-six years ago is practically prehistoric when it comes to romance, and it’s obvious that the genre has come a long, looooooooooong way since then. But it obviously hasn’t come far enough. This book, with all its throwback, regressive attitudes, is still in print, and like I mentioned above, my library copy seemed fairly new, with no creased pages and a cover that showed no signs of wear. Meaning, of course, that…

This book is still in print, and what that tells me is that some romance publishers don’t necessarily think that women deserve better books, books where we aren’t called bimbos nineteen times throughout the pages and made to suffer rape and other forms of trauma in order to further the plot. I know that’s a bunch of crap, because I’ve read far better romance novels, where women rightfully give men who belittle them the middle finger and bestow their time and attention on men who prove themselves worthy of it. ACTUALLY worthy of it. Why should we be subjected to reading stories where women degrade themselves by falling into the arms of someone who, just pages ago, referred to them as a bimbo? Why does rape still continue to be a plot device in 2020? Why should books with abject racism and fatphobia still take up shelf space and space in our minds?

What I’m saying is that for those publishing companies still championing this kind of garbage by keeping books like this in print- you can do better, and your readers deserve that. This is one author I won’t be reading again. My time is worth more than that.

Visit Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

historical romance

Flames of Glory- Patricia Matthews

Okay, so a while back, I posted about reading an article asking romance readers, “What was the book that got you into reading romance in the first place?” And of course, my answer to that was a big fat, “Uh…I can’t remember the title. Or the author. Or much of what happened in it.” Which is all super helpful information when you try to find a book, right? The universe smiled upon me, however; about two weeks or so after I read that article, I just so happened to find The Book, which turned out to be Flames of Glory by Patricia Matthews (Thomdike Press, 1982). I’m still not over the fact that I actually found that book- I didn’t even really look at it at the used book sale, just kind of shrugged after I thought it might be it (because I had to leave; other errands to run!), then stuffed it in my bag. And it was so, so it!

Despite the florid description on Goodreads (complete with OCR scan typo), the book’s style wasn’t actually as overwritten as I expected and turned out to be a mostly pleasant read, generally speaking. Let’s start by picking apart the back cover copy (I’ll tidy up that scan error):

SHE WAS TORN FROM THE ARMS OF LOVE AND IMPRISONED IN THE HOT EMBRACE OF PASSION…

Sultry Tampa, crossroad for gallant soldiers of the Spanish-American War, was the beloved home of young Jessica Manning. Her elegance and delicate beauty entranced the most valiant men, but fate gave her the most ruthless–hot-blooded Brill Kroger. Ignited by selfish passion, Brill abducted Jessica, then swept his anguished prize on a blazing seaward quest for Aztec gold. Through it all, Jessica clung to one aching wish–a return to her glowing moments of surrender in the strong arms of dashing Rough Rider Lieutenant Neil Dancer. Neil’s heart burned wildly for his lost Jessica, and his fury now drove him to pledge his very life to rekindle the flames of their glorious love.

EGADS. Is that not the fussiest back cover copy you’ve ever read? Were all 80’s romance novels described like this??? The actual writing of the book is nothing like this and reads pretty close to what I would expect out of any decently-written book on the shelf today, so I’m not sure what the goal was with that mess.

There’s a brief scene at the beginning when Jessica is just fourteen years old, out with her parents and in awe over the grand opening of the Tampa Bay Hotel. Flash forward another seven years, and Jessica, whose greatest and sole personality trait is being beautiful (unless having sunshiny blond hair is also a personality trait, then that too, I suppose), is so utterly bored with life (ONLY BORING PEOPLE ARE BORED, JESSICA) that she’s practically cheering the start of the Spanish-American war, because it means that Tampa is filling up with soldiers, particularly Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Despite a prickly start, she and Lieutenant Neil Dancer (who has lightning-quick outdoor sex with Jessica’s skeezy friend Dulcy that lasts all of a brief paragraph forty-four pages into the book) spend a maximum of four or five hours together before sailing off on a day trip, getting marooned on a deserted island, declaring instalove, and engaging in what I imagine as being gritty, uncomfortable, sand-filled beach sex.

But back up a little bit from that image. The new man in town is Brill Kroger, which is quite possibly the worst romance villain name I’ve ever heard (you can practically hear the mustache twirling, can’t you?). Ostensibly, he’s there to help plan a ball to raise money for the soldiers, but thanks to a multiple narrative that allows us into his head, we know he’s really a con man who’s planning to run off with the money, but not before using (and abusing, because this was published in the early 80’s) a few Tampa women. While he hooks up with Dulcy several times, his vicious sites are mostly set on Maria Mendes, a Cuban-American woman who works at the hotel (and whose POV we also get to enjoy), and then, after she scorns and embarrasses him, Jessica. He’s a creep of the highest order, and oddly enough, he’s probably the most well-developed character.

As soon as Neil leaves with the Rough Riders, a head injury sends Jessica into the throes of- you guessed it- AMNESIA (because of course! This book checks so many romance novel boxes), wiping all her memories of Neil: their instalove, the sex on the beach, their secret engagement. When she doesn’t show up to visit Neil on the docks (that good old military hurry-up-and-wait in action!), he gets alternately pissy and worried, while back at home, amnesiac Jessica begins to swoon over Ramon, Maria’s brother (a plot point that served mainly to help the time pass, as far as I could tell). Neil is injured not long after the actual fighting starts in Cuba, and despite his love and worry about Jessica, he still gets naked with Margarita, a woman from the rebel camp who tended to his wounds. Bet he’ll never tell Jessica about that!

Back home (and there’s a content warning here), in the land of the 1890’s written in the 1980’s, Brill rapes and murders Dulcy out of a combination of fury from rejection by Maria and annoyance at Dulcy as a person. Tampa is mostly yawning over the war and so Brill’s idea of a benefit ball won’t work, but being the skilled con man he is, he changes it to a ball benefiting the local victims of a fire (Jessica’s amnesia-inducing head injury came from helping out here with the Red Cross). On the night of the ball, things go south fast, and in order to escape with the money, Brill abducts Jessica, flees to Mexico with her, and then loses his mind and thinks she’s his beloved mother, a tactic that really only makes sense because it was the only way for Jessica to remain alive and solely touched by Neil’s still-in-use-during-this-break-and-somehow-magically-not-full-of-syphillis johnson.

Long story short, Jessica doesn’t develop much personality while in captivity. Upon his return to Tampa, Neil learns of Jessica’s abduction and teams up with Maria and her soon-to-be fiancĂ©-then-husband Tom to travel to Mexico to bring Jessica back. Which they do, and of course Brill meets an untimely end, while Neil and Jessica and Maria and Tom live happily ever after, until, I assume, someone dies in childbirth and someone else dies due to lack of antibiotics, because this is the 1890’s and those things happen (this is where my brain goes when I read historical fiction).

So.

This actually wasn’t terrible! Despite Neil and Jessica lacking in the personality department and Brill being a little overwritten, the setting- 1890’s Tampa at the start of the Spanish-American war- really made this novel come alive. I can’t say I’ve ever read anything else set during this time period, at least not in Tampa (which is probably why that stuck in my memory as one of the very few things I recalled about the book before finding it again), and I very much enjoyed reading all the historical facts and bits of trivia that Ms. Matthews wove into the story. I kept running back to Google while reading this, checking to see if certain bits were real, and from what I can tell, Flames of Glory is well-researched. In my opinion, it’s worth the read for the setting and period interest alone.

The characters…ehhhhhh. Jessica had about as much personality as a limp dishrag, and Neil wasn’t much better. There’s no description of what they love or even like about each other, most likely because neither of them actually have personalities or actual character traits, and they spend about ten seconds together with minimal conversation before getting down in the sand on that deserted island. Maybe that’s why Dulcy was so annoyed by Jessica and pissed off by Neil choosing her. Dulcy was every stereotype of the bad girl possible- she’s nasty and two-faced to Jessica, she sleeps around, she gets raped and murdered as punishment for her behavior- but at least she was interesting to read. Jessica, not so much. *yawn* Neil at least manages to come to the conclusion that maybe war isn’t all that great, after getting shot and watching his buddies get killed and maimed, so good for him on that, I guess (but facepalm for it taking his friends dying in front of his eyes for him to figure that out. Seriously, dude?). Dulcy doesn’t last long enough to grow as a character, Brill just gets worse in every way, and Jessica is as bland at the end as she is at the beginning…but Maria! Maria is strong and intelligent; she’s thoughtful and caring, cunning in all the right ways- a good thing, since it helps her evade Brill several times- and she goes from a young woman expecting to live a safe life in Tampa, to a grown woman who falls in love and is willing to put her life on the line to save a friend. She’s by far the most enjoyable character in the entire story.

Along with content warnings for a rape and murder scene, there’s one cringeworthy scene where Jessica is noticing the local Mayan people in Mexico; her descriptions of them are less than flattering and seemed unnecessary and unfair. The rest of the book seemed to me to be okay, but that one paragraph had my eyebrows way, way up there.

It’s funny; I first read this book when I was about twelve years old, but as I read it this time, I found myself remembering lines from upcoming paragraphs, and when I turned the page, sure enough, there would be the line I remembered. The human brain is a crazy thing. I can’t remember why I went into the kitchen half the time, but lines from a romance novel I read in 1992? WHY NOT!!!

One thing I didn’t remember about the book: when Brill drags Jessica to Mexico, he’s on the hunt for gold, and thanks to his interpreter, he learns that a great place to find gold is in a well in Chichen-Itza, used for sacrifices by the Aztecs to their rain god. The well is connected to a cenote, a deep, water-filled sinkhole connected to underground rivers. My husband and I honeymooned in CancĂșn and had the privilege of swimming in a few cenotes, and I’ve been fascinated with them ever since. I had a huge smile on my face when the word appeared in the book!

A few cenote pics:

Most likely not the same cenote in which Brill Kroger met his untimely (or, let’s face it, timely, because he was a serious creep) end- I’m assuming he was hunting in the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza because it fits the description in the book- but still pretty amazing. And yes, we both jumped from the ledge (at the top of those stairs) into the water, which was about a ten-foot drop, maybe more. I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I left without doing that, no matter how scary the first jump was! If you ever get a chance to swim in a cenote, DO IT. Seriously one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

All in all, while this wasn’t the greatest read of my life, I’m glad I got the chance to read it again, and that I was in the right place at the right time to find this book. I’m not sure what about it appealed to me as a kid, other than it was the first book I ever came across that included sex scenes- I mean, I was twelve, that may very well have been it! But because of this book, I’ve picked up plenty of other romances that I adored, so for that, I’ll always be grateful to Patricia Matthews and Flames of Glory.

Patricia Matthews passed away in 2006 at the age of 79. You can learn more about her at her Wikipedia page here.