Ain’t She Sweet — Susan Elizabeth Phillips

[asa book]0066211247] First: I listened to this as an audiobook, and I’m going to evaluate the book separately from the reading.

The book is, for my money, probably going to be my favorite Susan Elizabeth Phillips. It’s funny and sweet, but it’s also quite thoughtful. It’s a twist on Cinderella and her stepsister — because you don’t know which one is which, and by the end, you’re still debating. In a good way. Can they both be Cinderella, with dashes of stepsister? Pretty much, because the main female characters (Sugar Beth, the former high school beauty queen of Parrish, Mississippi, now down on her luck) and Winifred (her half sister by her father’s open relationship to another woman) are complex in the way they see themselves, each other, and the world. In the end I liked Sugar Beth the best, because she comes a long way, learns a lot, but doesn’t lose her edge.

The novel is very atmospheric, full of southern smells and sights and sounds (I’ll get to more about this in a minute) and does a great job of capturing the good and bad of small town life. I highly recommend it for anybody who likes a well done love story. Unless you’ve got a lot of biased, preconceived notions about romance, you should read this book.

Now about the audio. The reader is Kate Flemming, and she knows her way around a variety of southern accents. Flemming reads Sugar Beth with just the right amount of vinegar; I don’t think I would have liked Sugar Beth quite so much if I had been reading rather than listening. Really.

The problem is Flemming’s reading of Colin Byrne, the main male character. A successful author, once Sugar Beth’s reviled high school English teacher — she got him fired by telling a lie after he proved that a man could be immune to her charms. Colin is supposed to be the son of an Irish mason, a boy with ambition who managed to get an education beyond his social standing and pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps. I don’t believe there’s ever a mention of where he went to university, but it’s clear that he worked for what he’s got, and re-cast himself. And then Kate Flemming goes and reads him with an outdated posh upper class accent.

There are lots of examples of current day upper-class English accents out there. Colin Firth in What a Girl Wants jumps to mind, along with a dozen other examples from modern movies. But this Colin Byrne talks like an overdone Basil Rathbone circa 1930, all glottal creak (which is, in fact, a technical term) and plummy vowels. I kept thinking it was a joke, that there would be some explanation in the story of why he affected such an outlandish accent, but nope. It was so overdone it almost stopped me from listening to the book, but the story pulled me along and I learned to ignore it. I think I would have liked the character Colin Byrne a lot more if he hadn’t sounded like such a dweeb of a throwback.

Please note that I do have some grounds for making such judgments — my husband is a Brit with the kind of educational background that Colin Byrne is supposed to have. I played a bit of the audiobook for him so he could hear the character, and he burst into laughter.

But. In the end Flemming does such a great job with the other characters, I have to give the audiobook a pass.