Sunday, July 19

Breathing Room - Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Despite a chaotic childhood with alcoholic parents, Dr Isabel Favor never has to worry about moving on short notice brecause of unpaid rent, looking blowsy and dishevelled like her mother, or going hungry. Every aspect of her life is ordered and controlled, from her career as a best-selling help book author to her immaculate and neutrally-toned apartment, from her trim and neat appearance to her scheduled and appropriate relationship with her fiance. It's all built on the theory she created, the Four Cornerstones of a Favorable Life: healthy relationships, professional pride, financial responsibility and spiritual dedication.
And in one brief day Isabel's life falls apart - her accountant has embezelled the money she owed the tax department and her fiance leaves her for another woman. To add insult to injury Michael tells her she has sexual hangups, and his new love is older, fatter, rumpled and pregnant! Owing the IRS over a million dollars, her career a laughing stock and her new book selling only in triple figures, Isabel has to sell everything she owns with the exception of a suitcase full of clothes and a gold bangle engraved with 'breathe' to remind herself to stay centred. The offer from a friend to take over the short-term lease of a Tuscan farmhouse seems perfect, and Isabel gives herself some time to take stock and start over. But her neat schedule of events doesn't come off, and Isabel learns that real life is messier and less controlled than she believes.
I've read all of Phillips's novels and this stand alone is one of my favourites. She writes great novels, and this is no exception - the hero and heroine are rounded and layered, the plot hurdles are believable and integrate with the characters' personalities, the sub-plots are dynamic and involving, and the secondary characters are well crafted.
In Breathing Room the hero is Italian-born, American-raised film star Lorenzo "Ren" Gage, best known as the world's premiere murderer - his only role as romantic hero spectacularly flopped. Lorenzo and Isabel hook up in Fiorenze, where their chemistry and her determination to prove her ex wrong override their ability to communicate - he pretends to be an Italian called Dante, she a Frenchwoman named Annette. When they next meet it's as absentee landlord and tenant, and the chemistry resurfaces.
There are several separate sub-plots; one is a mystery involving the whole village, and the other involves Ren's mercurial first wife Tracy and her polar-opposite husband Harry Briggs. The latter is substantial and has a host of related sub-plots about their five children (one unborn) that interconnect with the issues Ren has about children and about his latest film. There's a particularly great scene where Ren coaches runaway daughter Steffie on the key aspects to avoiding being grounded, and an ongoing thread about toilet training. In particular the disharmony, and Isabel-led therapy, of Tracy and Harry provides a strong counter-point to the evolving relationship between Isabel and Ren, and the importance of honest communication between couples. - Alex

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