Saturday, March 20, 2010

Review: Lead Me On, Victoria Dahl

Title: Lead Me On
Author: Victoria Dahl
Publication Info: Harlequin, 2010
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Grade: B+

I've really enjoyed Victoria Dahl's contemporaries--they're smart, fun, and witty. The main characters are interesting, and maybe I wouldn't be best buds with all of them, but they seem like really, truly possible people. My biggest complaint with Dahl's books, both the contemporaries and her historicals, is that there's always a lame suspense side plot. Leave it out! The books are so much better without the murder/stalker/assaulter/blackmailer. Lead Me On is no exception: the perfectly lovely story has a tacked on suspense plot that absolutely detracts from the novel, and keeps this book in B territory.

The book centers on plain Jane Morgan, who revels in just how plain and put-together she is. She's got her life in order, no messiness, and is looking for an ambitious, put-together, upwardly mobile guy. Trouble is, she's not particularly attracted to those guys. Instead, she's weak at the knees for bad boys, with crappy clothes, big boots and tattoos. The bad boy who's got her blood going is Chase. She thinks he's everything she doesn't want but is really attracted to. He thinks she's an uptight, prim secretary. Something about her draws him. She knows exactly what about him draws her, but doesn't want it to.

Despite her best intentions, she finally agrees to go out with him. She's willing to pursue a physical relationship with him, and is flabbergasted when he ultimately turns down sex if that's all she's willing to offer him. This being a romance, we know they're going to get together, but really, the story isn't really about them, it's about Jane, and her personal growth.

And woo boy, does she have a lot of growing to do. Jane's extreme put-togetherness is her masterwork of self-fashioning. She had a hard childhood, and even harder teenage years. She was wild, dangerous and self-destructive, and though she got herself together, her life since sixteen has been to prove that she's the opposite of that wild, dangerous and self-destructive teen. Which, for Jane, means a new life, a new name, a new type of guy, and as few ties with her past as possible, including minimal contact with her family.

She is ashamed of who she was, and that part of her is still that same person, evidenced by what she sees as a self-destructive taste in men. She has convinced herself that the person she wants to be would never fall for a guy like Chase, who, though she doesn't know it (and doesn't find out until the very end--thank you, Dahl), may not look like the guy she thinks she ought to want, but has the credentials, including a college degree and a successful business, that she requires. He is none of the things Jane thought he was based on his appearance; Chase is practically walking proof that Jane's reliance on appearances is misguided, though she, of course, takes most of the novel to realize that.

A family crisis compels Jane to spend more time with her family, and incidentally with Chase, and she begins to like him more, and see what a good person he is. What I like, though, is that Dahl is smart enough to make the story more complicated. It's not a simple "now that I know him better I realize how wrong I was" story; instead, Jane responds to the possibility that her judgment might have been wrong the way most people would--by holding even harder to her opinions. She has constructed her sense of self around certain ideas, and when they are challenged, she resists because rethinking a sense of self is scary. She keeps pushing Chase away. Chase is practically a saint, and keeps coming back, only to be pushed away again. All I can say is, may I be so lucky as to meet a guy with that much integrity, commitment to me, and a nurturing streak a mile wide.

I really liked watching Chase and Jane interact. Jane's issues are big and scary, but the tone of the book is light, and Chase and Jane are a fun couple to eavesdrop on. I did wonder a bit, though, what drew Chase to Jane to strongly, since he fell for her very quickly, especially given the crap he had to put up with from her. I giggled and laughed, though, and definitely rooted for Jane's growth, so she could see how great Chase was. Not a lot of growth for Chase, who is basically a static, though yummy, character. As I said, the book is really more about Jane, than Jane and Chase.

Two things keep this book from an A: Jane's resolution with her mother felt too fast, and the stupid assault/blackmail plot shoehorned in at the end. Why oh why, Victoria Dahl, are your heroine's so persecuted by the men in their lives, especially their exes? The episode with Jane's ex at the end of the book was completely spurious and I would have much preferred the novel without it. As for Jane's resolution with her mother, I had a hard time believing that their issues could be resolved in one or two conversations, and that Jane could subsequently come to terms with her own past so quickly.

Overall, though, Lead Me On was lovely, and I highly recommend it. I hope there are more to come.

p.s. I read the book from the library.