Friday, November 20

First Lady - Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Cornelia Linchfield Chase is America's most perfect First Lady. She should be - from birth it's the role she was groomed for. But a life in the public eye, the nation's sweetheart from the time she was snapped at sixteen crying, a dying African child in her arms, has been stifling. When her husband, President Case, died Nealy mourned but she thought she was finally free. When she realises her politico father and the new President expect her to stay in the role, Nealy rebels. Disguised as an elderly tourist she escapes the White House and heads off on an anonymous adventure.
Mat Jorik is a man's man - the only boy and the eldest in a fatherless family of eight his whole life was nothing but nappies and drying nylons. Unemployed after leaving an increasingly tawdry anchor position, he hopes to return to his journalist roots. When he receives a legal letter informing him that his long-divorced wife has died, naming him the father of her two daughters, he feels dragged bag to the domesticity he tried so hard to escape. He scoops up the toddler and adolescent he knows are no kin of his and treks cross-country to deposit them with their grandmother.
You always know what you'll end up with when you read a romance - obviously Nealy and Mat are going to wind up together, along with the kids. As always, though, the journey is what counts, and with Phillips it's always a pleasure. The elements one expects from her work is here - well rounded characters, engrossing plot, romantic attraction and realistic dialogue, and the portrayal of both children is spot on.
First Lady's political component adds an interesting extra dimension - I'd not previously considered the pressure these scrutinised women are under, or the ordinary things they miss out on, and Phillips does a masterful job of portraying a woman with conviction, a strong sense of duty, and a need for relief. She also manages to avoid identifying which party Nealy's associated with - the only real life political figures mentioned are former First Ladies from both parties, and Nealy's own politics are "left wing here, right wing there, then middle of the road" as she steers clear of partisan politics in favour of the national interest. This aspect is an integral part of Nealy's character but doesn't drive the novel, so if you're disinterested in politics it won't affect your enjoyment. For me, though, in addition to the usual satisfaction I feel when finishing a Phillips novel I also felt inspired that a politician like Nealy might come along, here or in the US. - Alex

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