Warm, comforting, and sweet–a mug of hot chocolate on a blustery fall afternoon. That was what I expected when I picked up Susan Mallery’s novel The Best of Friends; that was what I
got. If you enjoy light, easy-on-the-brain romance fiction, you won’t be disappointed.
Synopsis: Jane Scott has been a surrogate member of her friend Rebecca Worden’s family since she was seventeen, when she lost her mother to breast-cancer.
The product of a single parent home, Jane is treated as part daughter, part unpaid servant by the rich Wordens, who own a very successful jewelry store
in Beverly Hills. After walking out on her family ten years ago, Rebecca Worden is back, principly to make trouble for her haughty, overbearing mother
Elizabeth. When her older brother David returns home as well to take his place at the head of the family business and, as Elizabeth insists, to settle
down with a wife, the Wordens are forced to confront their past–a past that threatens to destroy them–and Jane is caught in the midst of it, not to mention
being entangled in David’s arms (and his bedsheets). Throw in a mysterious blue diamond, an opportunistic mother intent on selecting her son’s bride from
Beverly Hills’s best (a shortlist that does not of course include Jane), and the uncovering of some very explosive family secrets, and you’ve got one hell
of a bombshow.
Susan Mallery’s plot is predictable; we know precisely where and
with whom the characters will wind up, but like the Jane Austen novels from which Mallery draws upon so heavily, the magic of this romantic story is not
the thrill of finding out what happens in the end, but how the characters get there.
I liked the way that Mallery laid emphasis on David as the prize plumb; we’re all aware–at least if we’ve read Pride and Prejudice–that “it is a truth
universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” but all to often we forget that these young men,
semeingly on the hunt for rich heiresses, are frequently the pawns in the match-making games of many an ambitious mother. Mallery drives this idea home
(like an icepick to the brain) through Elizabeth’s character. an interesting combination of Mrs. Bennet’s irritating, nosy interference and Lady Catherine
De Burgh’s haughty, overinflated opinion of self-worth, Elizabeth Worden might not be charming, but she’s fully alive to the fact that, whether 19th century
England or 21st Century Beverly Hills, the mother pulls the strings from which her son must dangle precariously on the marriage market.
If we’re going to read this as a contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice, that’s probably Mallery’s strongest selling point; aside from that, between
the frequent mentions of Austen, the teasing jab at (to quote Rebecca) the “long version of Pride and Prejudice…the Colin Firth version,” and the Lifetime movie comparisons,
I felt like I was being beaten over the head with cliches, though admittedly, I should have expected nothing less and only have myself to blame for not
wearing my chick-lit armor. I don’t know whether Mallery was intending to convince her readers that her novel isn’t just another retelling of Jane Austen
or if she was trying to carve a creative niche for herself within that sub-genre; if the former, methinks the lady doth protest too much. If the latter,
the novel doesn’t strike me as any better or worse than similar stories. Fans of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels might appreciate the sexual tension
(not to mention the wink and nudge in the direction of the “long version” of Pride and Prejudice that inspired the creation of Mark Darcy, but they’ll
miss the tongue-in-cheek
British humor and colorful pros that make
Fielding’s novels the perfect blend of hilarious and heartwarming.
About the characters: I found them to be simply-rendered, but convincing. We have no problem cheering for Jane as she transforms from a shy, unassuming
girl into a strong, self-assertive woman; we fall, with very little pushing, into David’s open arms; we’re alternately irritated with and sorry for Rebecca–I’ve-got-everything
glamor girl on the outside, insecure child on the inside; we feel a savage pleasure as we witness Elizabeth’s downfall.
Altogether not one of my personal favorites, but like that cup of hot chocolate, it hits the spot if you’re in the mood for something warm and fluffy.