Reviewed: February 1, 2011
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Series: N/A (Non-Series / Stand-Alone)
Rating: 4 Stars
Length: 416 Pages
Formats: Print, eBook
Sugar Beth Carey was the trifecta of badness in high school: privileged, popular, and as vicious as a riled cotton mouth. When she blew out of Parrish, Mississippi, intent on taking life by the jugular and squeezing, she left a path of devastation in her wake. Before she carelessly blew off her best friends and cheated on her high school sweetheart, then dumped him, she'd tormented and emotionally tortured her illegitimate half sister and got her English teacher fired and forced out of the country by lying about an attempt to molest her.
There was nothing sweet about her.
Life, though, doesn't concern itself much with the callow attempts of the vain and shallow, the spoiled and venomous. It's the great leveler. And with one abusive husband, one drunken husband, and a string of failures and mistakes prior to landing slightly more gently with a third husband several years her senior, only to end up virtually penniless upon his death, Sugar Beth Carey was more than adequately leveled.
Or so she thought until she dragged herself back to Parrish, found her high school English teacher - and one of her biggest regrets - Colin Byrne in the house that should've been hers when her mother died. As if that wasn't bad enough, he is good friends with the step sister that she had been so horrible to...who was now married to Sugar Beth's former high school sweetheart. Suddenly, leveled seems like it would be a big step up from the hole in which she's found herself.
Sugar Beth may have turned her life around with the help of the kind soul of her third husband, but revenge is a dish best served cold, and not even sultry, summer southern nights can ward off the frigid blast of revenge that's aimed her way now.
Colin Byrne may have been near the head of the line of people who wanted Sugar Beth to crawl when he found her back in town - he'd lost so much to her vicious lies and rumors - but the sweet taste of revenge turned quickly bitter when his much deserved pound of flesh didn't break the older but still beautiful woman four years his junior. Admittedly pompous, imperious, and a bit cold, the former teacher learns his own lessons when he realizes that the wild child has grown a core of steel and a deep well of integrity. Suddenly revenge seems petty, and what had once been cold disdain was starting to heat up into a different feeling entirely.
Two wounded and damaged souls...one small town with a long memory. There won't be enough water in all of the state to keep this conflagration contained.
Ain't She Sweet? is a complex and layered southern contemporary romance with more depth and tragedy than I was expecting. I give credit to Susan Elizabeth Phillips for managing to keep Sugar Beth sympathetic, despite some actions that were outrageously unforgivable. In fact, for all that Sugar Beth was a wretched, wretched child, there was enough cause given to balance out some pretty horrendous things, and enough redemption to keep her palatable as the female lead.
I had a harder time with Colin, actually. I liked him from the beginning, and by the end I loved him, but he wasn't given as much development and backstory as I would have preferred. It made it a little hard sometimes to really put my finger on the motivations for some of his words and actions and kept him feeling a little like a stranger through the book.
Instead of spending more time on Colin, Ain't She Sweet? slightly overextends itself into developing the secondary and ancillary characters of Winnie, her husband Ryan, and their daughter Gigi. There were fully developed plot threads surrounding Gigi's identity issues, Winnie's marital problems, and the mother-daughter struggle between them. I struggled with those sections of the book because I kept wanting to get back to Colin and Sugar Beth.
I think Winnie was an important character, of course, and I enjoyed the evolution of the relationship between her and Sugar Beth. I also thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated Gigi's contributions to showing off Sugar Beth's self awareness and stage of development. I thought all of that was well handled. But when I read a romance, my preferences lie with reading about the main characters and seeing how they come together first and foremost, with lesser emphasis on secondary characters and their storylines. There is a fine line for me between plot threads that compliment and add depth to the main romance arc and its characters, and plot threads that overwhelm it. In this case, unfortunately, I felt it was a little overwhelmed.
The Seawillows, however, I genuinely hated. And their unrelenting pettiness rubbed me the wrong way from the start. Where I can fully understand why Sugar Beth and Winnie had valid, painful issues going back almost since birth, that group of harpies had little to warrant such grudges and reprehensible behavior in public, and had nothing at all redeeming about them. They so needed to get over events that happened fifteen years ago. They were the only part of the book that I flat out didn't like.
As a whole, Ain't She Sweet? is a rich, full story with some genuinely yummy layers, full to the brim with turbulent emotions and genteel redemption. Yes, I wish there had been a little more focus on Colin and the romance between him and Sugar Beth, but I still enjoyed it as is. And was pleasantly surprised by the scope and depth given to the plot, and to the character and history of Sugar Beth Carey.
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