Don’t Judge a Book by Its Title: TBR Challenge Review

This month’s TBR Challenge was to read a book by “an author who has more than one book in your TBR pile.” Bypassing romantic suspense (sorry, just not in the mood for that these days), I found that I didn’t have many options. One author whose books I’ve purchased more than once, but never read, is India Grey. Her work comes recommended by readers who like the other Harlequin Presents authors whose work I tend to enjoy — Sarah Morgan, Sarah Mayberry, Maisey Yates, Caitlin Crews, Abby Green, and a few others.

A dark-haired man in a black suit holding a dark-haired woman in his arms. She's wearing a purple dress with skimpy straps. They are standing in front of Italianate pillarsI remember reading in someone else’s review of this book that it was much better than the title suggests, and yet I’m sure it’s the title that kept me from picking it up until this challenge.

Sarah (short for Seraphina) is an never married single mom who recently lost her job with a big London catering firm under embarrassing circumstances. She has serious self-esteem issues, particularly over her appearance, and specifically over her weight. The first few chapters of the book are full of her references to dieting, failing to diet, being heavy, needing to lose a few pounds, and so on. (I got to the point that I was highlighting them.) Of course she’s actually not fat; she can squeeze into, although it doesn’t cover the gap above her jeans, a size small t-shirt. She’s just not skinny, and not athletically toned. I would have been angry at her being considered heavy, except that the only point of view from which she’s presented that way is her own — she has internalized skinny model beauty standards (as exemplified by her step-sister), and this becomes one more way in which she feels like she can’t measure up — as a woman, a mother, or a daughter.

Sarah meets her “powerful Italian,” film director Lorenzo, when he is visiting Oxfordshire and she’s attending her sister’s hen weekend (that’s bachelorette party in the US). They have an embarrassing meet-cute moment, but it’s more than that — he’s in the UK because he wants to make a movie of her dead father’s novel, set there in Oxfordshire. As he soon learns, she has control of the film rights, and she always refuses film offers.

When they meet again, it’s right before the wedding — she’s catering it at her stepsister’s new renovated barn home in Tuscany, which is adjacent to Lorenzo’s estate. Rain brings the roof down, so the whole wedding party ends up taking refuge with Lorenzo. He offers to let them have the festivities there, because he wants time to get to know Sarah and to get her to like him before trying to change her mind about the film. She has no idea that he’s the director interested in her father’s book, and she has a hard time believing that he’s interested in her. He keeps seeing her in embarrassing/partially clothed/messy hair situations, and he finds her beautiful and “natural,” unlike his movie star ex-wife who is all about image over substance. Sarah, of course, compares herself to his ex and thinks that he can’t possibly find her attractive after such glamor and beauty.

Lorenzo hires Sarah as his housekeeper for the summer, so that she and her daughter Lottie can stay longer in Italy, which they have come to love. This gives him more time to get close to her before asking about the film rights, although by this time he’s growing less concerned with those and more concerned with making Sarah happy and building up her self-esteem. Seeing her with her family and hearing her talk about her relationship with her father gave him insights into her reasons for being so hard on herself, and he is determined to show her how he sees her.

The reader can see the problems coming — the confrontation with his ex, the eventual revelation that he’s after the film rights — but each of those is handled with a unique spin. So is the issue of why he’s divorcing the pregnant actress but has no problem with Sarah’s daughter. (I’m resisting the spoiler, but I have to say that I rarely see this plot device in romance, especially the Presents line.) Amazingly, there is no last-minute appearance by Lottie’s father; I was shocked, because that seems de rigeur in romance, unless the father is dead. I guess it’s usually seen as tying up a potentially messy plot point, but I was glad that everyone accepted that Sarah was Lottie’s only real parent and didn’t keep trying to give authority or power to the man who walked out on them.

Of course, there’s the ugly duckling transformed into a swan moment, but again, it’s handled well. There’s a lot of work involved in achieving the “red carpet” look, and the story makes clear that even Sarah’s “natural beauty” needs professional help to meet film industry standards. Sarah’s issues about her appearance, especially her weight, vanished a little too unremarked for my taste; after all the references to excess weight at the beginning of the book, I thought there should be a real moment where she accepted her body, separate from the rest of her feelings about Lorenzo.

Despite that, I enjoyed this novel. Both characters were believable, and the romance really worked for me. I look forward to more of Ms Grey’s work.