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REVIEW: The Ex-Debutante by Linda Francis Lee

22 Apr 2008

For me, writing a review is twice as difficult as writing fiction. Gathering my thoughts and responses to a book and making them coherent is a lot more work than making something up and putting it down on paper. So, to the blog reviewers who do such thoughtful reviews on a regular basis, I salute you.

It was a sad day for me when Linda Francis Lee shed her romance roots and went the way of chick lit. Frankly, I’m not a fan of the genre. For the most part, I find chick lit heroines immature, shallow, and sometimes their actions fall into TSTL territory (yes, this can describe some romance heroines as well, but they seem to be staple of chick lit). And there’s no respite from these heroines because chick lit is usually told in the first person, so if the narrator gets on your nerves, you’re screwed for the entire book.

After reading Lee’s first foray into chick lit with The Devil in the Junior League, I took her off my auto-buy list. I had a few chuckles, but when I spend three-quarters of a book wanting to seize the narrator by her scrawny shoulders and shake common sense into her, I have to conclude it didn’t work for me. (I must be in the minority when it comes to The Devil in the Junior League because, according to Lee’s website, it’s being turned into a feature film.)

Then I was asked to review The Ex-Debutante. I was poised to turn down the offer, especially after I noticed the author photo has Lee wearing the same outfit as the woman on the book cover, right down to the sandals. *cough*Mary Sue*cough* However, I read the blurb and decided Carlisle Wainwright Cushing sounded less annoying than the narrator of the previous book.

Carlisle Wainwright Cushing, of the old-moneyed Willow Creek, Texas, Wainwrights, is the daughter of larger-than-life Ridgely Wainwright…Cushing-Jameson-Lackley-Harper-Ogden. Given her mother’s predilection for divorce, no one is surprised that Carlisle becomes a divorce lawyer and runs far away to Boston, where nobody, including her fiancé, knows she’s an heiress. But now, three years later, Carlisle is lured back to Texas to deal with her mother’s latest divorce and the family-sponsored hundredth annual debutante ball, which is on the verge of collapse.

Suddenly the determined lawyer is weighing the merits of beads versus crystals on ball gowns and teaching eighteen-year-olds to balance books on their heads, all the while trying to figure out how to tell her deeply Southern mother that she is engaged to a Yankee. Things go from bad to worse, and soon Carlisle’s afraid she’ll never get back to Boston, especially when good ol’ Southern boy Jack Blair shows up on the opposite side of the divorce court, making her wonder if the man is going after her mother in the proceedings–or her. There is the pesky little fact that when she left Texas three years ealier, she also left him.

Carlisle’s trip home challenges her sense of who she really is and forces her to face the secrets her family has tried to keep, well, secret… The Ex-Debutante is a story about the risks one woman must take if she stands a chance of finding herself, real love, and her place in that crazy thing we call family.

Legally Blonde meets bizarro Sweet Home Alabama meets ABC after-school special. And maybe a dash of “Will and Grace.”

What? The above isn’t a sufficient review? Sheesh.

I finished The Ex-Debutante in two sittings because the narrator’s voice is very vibrant and witty. I flew through the pages once I got past the info dump in the first chapter. Even though she seems younger than twenty-eight, Carlisle isn’t stupid, annoying, or too obsessed with trivial matters–and, thank God, she doesn’t refer to herself as moi. Her observations about Texas high society are sharp and funny. The secondary characters are caricatures, sometimes extremely so, but it works here because, as Carlisle notes, “Texans were all about Big. Big hair, big smiles, big parties” (195). So why not characters with Big personalities?

Plot-wise, this is a very, very predictable story. I figured out what would happen by the end of the second chapter, including the relationship between Carlisle and Jack (SPOILER! they get back together after sorting out the Big Misunderstanding in their past that was helped along by the high-maintenance mother SPOILER!), the divorce proceedings (including the Big Secret [SPOILER! the high-maintenance mother needs a little modern medical help to maintain her looks and ends back up with the husband SPOILER!]), and the debutante ball (SPOILER! a bunch of “outsider” girls…well, you know what happens SPOILER!). That said, I’m okay with predictable books. There’s a comfort in knowing what to expect (that’s the beauty of genre fiction), and authors can lend fresh voices to predictable plots to make them enjoyable, which is what Lee does here.

Lee pulled out all the stops for the clichéd ending. An over-the-top poor-little-rich girl says, “There’s no afternoon special crap here,” (283) and yet I couldn’t stop my eyes from rolling repeatedly throughout the final eight chapters. (Don’t worry, the chapters in this book are pretty short.) There were teenage and adult melodrama, the lesson to look beneath surface appearances, and the sappy message about the importance of family.

There’s a happy-for-now ending instead of happily-ever-after because I didn’t buy the twu wuv between Carlisle and Jack. Then again, this isn’t a romance, so I shouldn’t expect a fully developed relationship. Nonetheless, as a romance reader, I was left wanting–SPOILER! and it doesn’t help that Carlisle and Jack cheat on their partners with very little remorse. (I think I’m supposed to interpret the lack of guilt as signs that neither of them really loved their fiancés, therefore the cheating is acceptable.) SPOILER! Anyhoo, a few more chapters to flesh out the skimpy romance would’ve been nice, but then again, as I keep having to remind myself, this is chick lit and the focus isn’t on the romance but the narrator and company’s personal growth.

Overall, The Ex-Debutante is a quick, enjoyable read and, for me, falls between a B- and a B.

(If this book gets turned into a movie, I recommend Reese Witherspoon for the lead…despite the photo of the author dressing up as her character…or is it herself? I’m so confused.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Leesa permalink
    29 Aug 2008 8:01 AM

    As to the author wearing the same clothes as the model on the cover, I am pretty sure that the model is the author. It’s the same person. She isn’t copying the model, she is the model.
    I enjoyed the book too and read it in a few days. I found the glimpse of Texas high society fascinating and fun to read about. I wish the author would have gone into more detail about the debutantes and the whole debutante process. That was the best part of the story, I thought.

  2. 1 Sep 2008 4:40 PM

    If the author is the model, then it makes life a little difficult for the rest of us who keep having to tell people that our stories are pure fiction. It can get a little scary when you have readers who can’t separate you from the characters you create, especially in my genre.

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