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Harley Jane Kozak's Wollie Shelley has been lumped in with other "chick lit" mystery characters and I'm not sure why. I'm protesting this because otherwise I'd have to admit that I read that sub-genre, one that seriously doesn't appeal to me. The books are marketed deliberately as light, as "beach books." I don't want forgettable reads, I hate designer shoes, I've never understood "retail therapy," and I'm too old for trendy drinks and "Sex in the City." While Wollie has a certain degree of frivolity about her, she's not an innocent and she's not dumb. Wollie has a certain blitheness about her. She relies on her friends, the very savvy Fredreeq and Joey for the necessary details. But what drives Wollie Shelley, why she does what she does in life is a very serious matter.
In A DATE YOU CAN'T REFUSE, Wollie, who's just completed jury duty, is approached about taking a job that is uniquely suited to her: teaching foreign-born "celebrities" how to manage fame and status in the US. In other words, how to ask someone for a date, when to pick up the check, how to eat at a fast food restaurant, how to deal with traffic, with cops, with autograph seekers. Hiring her is Yuri Milos , the charismatic, attractive mogul from Belarus? Bulgaria? who owns and operates "MediasRex." She's replacing Chai (hush, it's LA) and it's hoped she can start Right Now, moving into the compound that MediasRex runs so that she can help train these new folks.
Complicating things is FBI agent Bennett Graham, who wouldn't mind if she took this job either, because something funny's going on with MediasRex. Wollie is a greeting card designer and perpetually in need of cold hard cash. She lives on the fringes, accepting that life may not always go her way but it's not because she's a failure. For Wollie Shelley, everything, all her money, her extra time, her efforts have to go toward PB, her brother, a schizophrenic who cannot live on his own. Currently he's staying in an excellent halfway house, but wouldn't you know the FBI stoops to blackmail? "Work for us or maybe PB can't stay there anymore." Wollie can't risk that.
At times, Wollie reminds me of a big happy floppy puppy dog. She is tireless and enthusiastic. She ineptly tries to bug rooms for the FBI. She gets caught snooping and flails around trying to explain. She insists on seat belts on her macho client, but can't manage to tell him that he can't do whatever he wants. She's supposed to receive orientation on this new job, and she never gets one minute of it during the few frenetic days she's working for Yuri. And she's not really good at standing up for herself. There's always a new crisis, a new complication, a new confrontation. There's Chai's boyfriend, who shows up throwing rocks at her window (Wollie thinks it's her FBI boyfriend, Simon, planning a midnight tryst. He's undercover on a different case and that complicates things too.) There's her accidental discovery of a gun room, with targets and all forms of weaponry. There are aimless lectures, an odd insistence on being on time in the midst of chaos and all sorts of strange people showing up at all hours, and no one explains anything.
But there's that moment when her boss takes some time to "talk about her goals." When Wollie is faced with "what is your purpose on earth"? she seriously answers "I used to think that I was put on earth to keep my little brother out of trouble." That is just the saddest damn thing. And it does control Wollie's life. In A DATE YOU CAN'T REFUSE all of this is in jeopardy even when Wollie does her best to use what she know of LA (and she does know LA, even the parts that are out of reach) to earn the best money she can for the best reason. She's so much tougher than she appears, tougher than most of us. When asked about her choices if she didn't have to worry about PB, she responds "There's always someone to worry about, isn't there? Someone who needs your help?" That's what drives Wollie to spend her days with the likes of Zbigniew the Moldovan boxer, trying to prep him for the Oprah Winfrey show.
When anyone else would have thrown her hands in the air and quit, Wollie keeps taking on more burdens. She doesn't seem to know how to say "No. Slow down. Explain to me before I explode." Sharon McCone would have walked off the job. Mary Russell would have turned on a heel and stormed out. Jack Reacher would have broken down the door, climbed down the balcony, anything trying to escape the messes that Wollie gets into.
Did Chai die an accidentally death? What's with all the deliveries? The guns? The strange visitors? While Wollie would appear to be charmed by Yuri, she's observant and knows far more than she lets on. Just toward the end, listen to her conversation with PB over his obsession with string theory and you'll know that while, yeah, she has her ditsy moments, she's anything but ditsy.
Reviewed by Andi Shechter, June 2009
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