Monday, March 5, 2012

Murder in Manolos, by Linsey Mastin


Heidi Hart has just graduated from business school, and is determined to support herself without her wealthy father's assistance.  But after two months of job hunting in New York City, she's getting worried, and the rent is due.  In a fit of desperation, she takes a job as a nanny with a wealthy family, only to discover that she's been hired to be more of a companion than a nanny, and that her charge is a bright and beautiful fifteen-year-old.  Between shopping trips and talking about boys, Heidi learns that Lauren's mother died in a tragic and mysterious boating accident years before, and soon the two girls have partnered together to uncover the real story of what happened that night.  But someone is trying to keep the truth a secret . . . and it just might be a secret worth killing for.

As you may have noticed, Mastin's story is essentially an updated re-telling of du Maurier's classic novel Rebecca . . . with some significant changes.  Our narrator is not the shy, overwhelmed second wife, but the bold, outspoken 'nanny' investigating a mysterious death.  Then, too, the victim has something of a different temperament from the titular Rebecca.  Nonetheless, the parallels are unmistakable--and highly effective.  As a huge fan of the original novel, I found myself eager to solve the mystery, eager to find out whether (and how much) Mastin had changed the details.

As with many modern novels, some of the 'hip and trendy' references border on dated, and may not age well.  For example, a Julia Roberts movie marathon, while quite commonplace in the 90s, is significantly less common today, especially when it includes less 'classic' fodder.  Pretty Woman will likely be a favorite for young girls for years to come, but I don't know that a modern teen (now or in the future) would have a nostalgic affection for such films as Runaway Bride (or Charlie's Angels, which makes an appearance later on). However, Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany's, having already withstood the test of time, are safer choices, and Mastin is wise to use them.  (Ditto for Tyra Banks, who gets a free pass simply because she's Tyra.)  [NOTE:  Nora Ephron does a great job of this, centering her films around classics like Pride & Prejudice (in You've Got Mail), Casablanca (in When Harry Met Sally), and, most notably, An Affair to Remember (in Sleepless in Seattle).]

The same principle applies for designer names:  Chanel, Gucci, Roberto Cavalli, Versace, Louboutin, Lacroix, and other well-established lines feel more timeless than a more au courant designer (who may prove to be something of a blip on the fashion radar).  Clothing descriptions can be similarly problematic, though Mastin does an excellent job of sticking to more classic ensembles (jeans paired with button-downs, sweaters, or tees; sweater dresses; sheath dresses, etc.) and vague descriptions; there are no detailed descriptions of hyper modern trends that will read to future generations the way neon sweatshirts, acid-washed jeans, and mismatched socks read to us today (rf. the Sweet Valley High books).  In other news, while Blackberries and texting make an appearance, Facebook and other 'current' trends are mercifully absent.

As for the characters here, they're not terribly complex. Heidi herself is a bit flaky at times--she is infuriatingly slow to grasp the significance of events and seems alarmingly naive at times (though at least other characters deride her for it from time to time).  Fifteen-year-old Lauren is impossibly mature and does a wonderful job of not interfering with the plot or getting her unreasonable teenage angst all over Heidi's story.  Lucas, Lauren's handsome older brother, reads like something out of fan-fiction. His Edward Cullen-worthy hair and appearance are laughable, and his dogged persistence of Heidi (and her equally dogged insistence that she feels nothing for him, despite the aforementioned blistering hotness) feels a bit forced.

Indeed, the entire world Mastin has created is wholly unrealistic.  Heidi is paid a presumably hefty sum to be friends with a totally chill and fun teen, and they spend their days shopping and talking and generally having a good time.  Of course Heidi gets to live with the family, in seriously nice digs.  Of course the gorgeous older brother has the hots for her.  This is a not a world where realism reigns supreme. But then, who reads a book like this for realism?  Despite all the predictable cliches and unlikely scenarios, I found myself enjoying the time I spent in Heidi's world and wanting to return.  This was the first book in a while that I really wanted to keep reading and didn't want to put down.

And for all their simplicity, I liked the characters.  I wanted Heidi to get together with the handsome guy.  I wanted them to find out what happened.  I felt bad when Lauren's sweet new stepmother got picked on, or when Heidi kept rebuffing Lucas's advances.  I cared about them.  Not in a gut-wrenching sort of way, to be sure, but I enjoyed spending time with them. And that's more than I can say about a lot of books.

Bottom line:  This is a delightful and endearing bit of fluff reading, with a liberal splash of nascent romance and just enough danger to keep things interesting.  Sort of like a Charlaine Harris book, but with shoes and shopping instead of vampires and werewolves.  Fair warning:  The final showdown is surprisingly gritty in comparison to the relatively light tone in the rest of the book, but I think it still works.  At any rate, I find myself looking forward to the next Heidi Hart book.

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