Karin Kallmaker has been writing romance novels for thirty years or so and she knows how to bend the rules just enough to keep things exciting. I didn’t read the blurb, because it’s Kallmaker and I knew the story would interest me. I wasn’t sure for a long time which characters would get romantically involved. Suspense isn’t often an ingredient in romance and I enjoyed it.
Alice Cabot is a very driven science journalist on the verge of burnout, which leads to her not always keeping her big mouth shut when she should. An incident with a congressman results in her editor moving her to the Style section for a report on Simply The Best, an extremely successful company selling women everything they can dream of, from clothes to yoni eggs. The CEO is the gorgeous and guarded Helene Jolie, and Alice can’t help but wonder what’s beneath the glamourous veneer. Helene’s new assistant Pepper Addington is tasked with providing Alice with all the information she needs while protecting the brand and Helene. All sorts of sparks fly when the New Yorker arrives in Beverly Hills and starts asking questions.
Karin Kallmaker is one of the first authors I read when I first found sapphic fiction 25 years ago and the only one from that period I still read. Her books are consistently good and her writing has grown without losing any of its energy.
As usual, Karin Kallmaker writes excellent characters. First impressions turn out to be mostly wrong and the characters’ true personalities are unveiled as the story unfolds. When we first meet Alice, she sounds burnt out, permanently grumpy and depressed, and the pandemic didn’t help. Neither does the alcohol she relies on to get through the day. She’s a New Yorker through and through and can’t believe anything good can come out of the land of pretence and bling. She’s also an excellent journalist, determined to get to the bottom of things, even when it means fighting her own bias. Helene has charisma in spades, her employees love her and so do her clients. Simply The Best seems to have found a miraculous formula to please women of various generations and backgrounds. Yet there are reasons why Helene is so wary of “serious” journalists. Then there’s Pepper. Not just a surfer girl, definitely not an airhead, Pepper is highly capable yet often underestimated. She’s kind, she’s smart, she’s enthusiastic and while probably not perfect, she’s profoundly good. And she’s one of those rare people with whom what you see is actually what you get, provided you’re willing to really look.
I don’t usually think of an imaginary cast for characters, since I don’t picture characters, despite the sometimes very detailed descriptions authors provide. I hear them though, and I had Jean Smart in my head every time Alice interacted with her mother. I’m not sure which woman I’d have her play, however. I also had Danielle Brooks at other times for Alice. Then I thought Cate Blanchett would be great as Helene, even if her hair and eye colour is all wrong and her company as seen through Alice’s eyes sounds like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop. Her energy is right though. As for Pepper, Brie Larson came to mind.
Chemistry in this book goes three ways, not all heartwarming and sexy. Sparks fly at first sight and do their best to hold on despite characters being deliciously obtuse and fighting the inevitable. Verbal sparring and powerplay between uneasy enemies bring a different kind of chemistry in the arena, with awe and admiration completing the triangle.
Pepper’s friends, Helene’s trusted PA, Alice’s mother are all interesting secondary characters. There’s also an unexpected cameo by a well-known bear. Or the idea of the bear. Anyhow, it made me laugh more than once.
One of the things I love in Karin Kallmaker’s books is the way she sets the scene. Her characters have real jobs, not just titles mentioned here and there. It’s part of who they are, part of the story, almost akin to world-building in sci-fi or fantasy. That said, Karin Kallmaker has earned the right to write all the words she wants and I’ll happily read them, but to be honest, this novel could have been quite a bit shorter and the ins and outs of Simply The Best may be where those extra words could have been found.
Neither fluffy nor too heavy, Simply The Best hits the right balance, incorporating current news and societal themes in what remains, fundamentally, a romance novel.