I am an unabashed Susan Elizabeth Phillips fan. I have been for most of my adult life, since I read NOBODY’S BABY BUT MINE, fell deeply in love with Cal, and never looked back.
For romance readers, Susan is the kind of author who keeps you watching the calendar, waiting for her latest release. For romance writers she is Babe Ruth, Einstein, Meryl Streep (pick your comparison)—what I’m getting at is this: Susan Elizabeth Phillips is the master, and we are lucky to get a chance to write around her.
I’m here today to talk about AIN’T SHE SWEET, which I read at least once a year (sometimes more than once when I’m in that book slump that its heroine, Sugar Beth Carey, is such an expert at getting the residents of Parrish, Mississippi out of). I reread it for lots of reasons that you’d expect—it’s hilariously funny, very sexy and a terrific example of a book that just makes you feel good.
But I also read it because we are all Sugar Beth.
At first glance, you won’t believe me. You see, at the start of the book, Sugar Beth is a downright bitch. You know the kind of girl I’m talking about—the mean girl in high school. She’s spoiled rotten and exceedingly cruel. Not just any old mean-girl, either. She’s the leader of them. But even at sixteen, she manages up better than any Dale Carnegie follower you’ll ever meet. Parents love her. Teachers love her. Well, except one teacher. Colin Byrne, young, handsome English teacher who loses his job when Sugar Beth tells her mother that he touched her inappropriately. She ruins his life.
But karma…well, it’s more of a bitch than Sugar Beth. Our heroine returns to Parrish fifteen years later, after three husbands. She cares for a developmentally disabled daughter and comes back to live in a house left to her by her aunt. The house in question sits on the land formerly owned by Sugar Beth’s father, now owned by wealthy and famous writer Mr. Byrne, who decides to humiliate her for her sins. And he’s our hero.
As I said, there are lots of reasons to love this book (the inherent conflict in Sugar Beth having to scrape and survive and live on the land owned by a man she ruined, Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s brilliant wit, Colin’s evolution into a dreamboat), but really, there’s only one reason to think it’s beautiful, and that’s this:
You start the book hating Sugar Beth, and you end up loving her.
Because, you see, Sugar Beth is the embodiment of the adage: Every villain is the hero of his own story. Suddenly, we see the truth of Sugar Beth’s past. Her desperate desire to be loved, her fear of being nothing but the pretty girl. We see her broken and bruised, but deeply committed to her step-daughter, who needs her quite desperately. And we see her center of steel–when the rest of this tiny town comes after her, desperate to see her fail, Sugar Beth doesn’t run and hide, she stays and fights. Taking hits and delivering them like a prizefighter.
We are all Sugar Beth.
We’ve all made mistakes. Said things we shouldn’t have said. Done things we shouldn’t have done. We are all the villain in another’s play (Full disclosure, I might be the villain in more than one play). But ultimately, we are heroes, as well. We have good qualities. We have strengths. And we, like everyone else, deserve love…despite our past sins. Perhaps because of them.
And when Sugar Beth and Colin finally, finally discover how they really feel, it’s magic, because she’s not sure she deserves love either.
“I was sure a long time ago. I’m very much in love with you.”
She gripped the phone tighter. “Come home, Colin. Now.”
“And put myself at your mercy again? I’m hardly that foolish.”
“Then how are we going to settle this?’
“Inside a church in front of a minister. Take it or leave it.”
She jumped back up. “I’m leaving it!”
Silly Sugar Beth.
Of course, it’s a romance novel…so she sees the light and everything works out in the end…but we’ve all been there, right? Terrified of our pasts and our futures…stuck in our present.
We are all Sugar Beth.