Contemporary romance + 19th century Gothic novels + puppets = Heroes Are My Weakness
Sounds like a killer combination, right? The premise: Hapless heroine Annie Hewitt is a bit of a mess when we meet her. Recovering from pneumonia, mourning the loss of her mother, drowning in debt, Annie has come to the Peregrine island, a small, cold rock off the Maine coast, to regroup in her mother’s small cottage. Looking to rest and regroup, she’s disturbed to discover that residing in the creepy house at the top of the hill is Theo Harp, reclusive horror author and tormentor from her youth. Trapped on the cold, secluded island, Annie is faced with the dilemma (per Goodreads): “Is he the villain she remembers or has he changed? Her head says no. Her heart says yes.” Also, Annie is a ventriloquist.
The good? I like the coat on the cover. Susan Elizabeth Phillips is a good writer. The audiobook narration was acceptable. It made me want to curl up on a couch in a cottage with hot chocolate and a copy of Jane Eyre.
The bad? The rest. This book really did not work for me. Why?
- Annie. As a general rule, I do not require likable characters in fiction. Romance is a different story. It’s a pretty low threshold of likability, but I have to want to spend time with the characters, at least a little. Annie is immature (the ridiculous pranks she plays on Theo just made me want to punch her), entitled (the way she runs around basically trespassing and demanding people give her things), stupid (I’m not good with mysteries, but I saw those plot twists coming MILES away), and not nearly as special, lovely, or charming as Phillips wants me to think she is.
- The treatment of mental illness. This might be a spoiler, but…….. Theo has two mentally ill women in his past, and while Annie pays lip service to how terrible mental illness is, she insistently refers to these women as “needy” or “crazy” while painting herself as the independent, sane woman that Theo really needs in his life. Annie a bit of a judgmental bitch. She absolves Theo of any responsibility he might have had to help these women get care for their mental health, and places all blame for wrong-doing on the women, NOT their diseases. This would be like Jane Eyre telling Rochester “That crazy lady in the attic sure is a drag, pal, let’s get hitched!” She also runs around the island irresponsibly playing Google psychiatrist, diagnosing and treating mental illness because she “studied human behavior” as an actor. Grr.
- The goddamned puppets. MAKE THEM STOP. Annie is a ventriloquist whose cast of puppets includes a heroine, hero, villain, mean girl, and trickster. The puppets are apparently active voices in Annie’s mind, piping in with commentary, encouragement, discouragement, and advice. Some might say this is a sign of mental illness? But I gather it’s supposed to be… charming?
- The premise. There is certainly a healthy smattering of gothic details. Early on, she seems to be setting up an Annie as Jane Eyre, bereft and unloved, coming to the big, gloomy house of the handsome yet sinister hero. For the first third of the book, Theo certainly behaves like the sinister gothic hero. And Phillips attempts some meta-commentary on heroes with the whole “heroes are my weakness” bit and Annie’s resolute efforts to change her weak ways. Also Annie reads gothic novels. For me, these efforts are just a bit of distraction layered on top of another story. Phillips never achieves the right mood for a gothic novel. Theo doesn’t seems genuinely dangerous because, despite lip service to the contrary, Annie never treats him like he’s dangerous. It feels like Phillips is trying to do too many things at once (gothic themes, puppets, traditional love-hate contemporary romance, secondary plot-lines) and fails. Or maybe I’m just cranky.
This is the second book in a row where I’ve checked in with an author I’ve really enjoyed in the past and found myself very disappointed. I’m beginning to think I should let sleeping authors lie.
1.5/5 stars (because the writing is still good)