Aug 26 2014 3:30pm

First Look: Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Heroes Are My Weakness (August 26, 2014)

Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth PhillipsSusan Elizabeth Phillips
Heroes Are My Weakness
William Morrow / August 26, 2014 / $26.99 print / $15.99 digital

Deepest winter.
An isolated island off the coast of Maine.
A man. A woman.
Puppets. (Yes, puppets . . .)
And . . .
A mysterious house looming over the sea . . .
He's a reclusive writer whose imagination creates chilling horror novels. She's a down-on-her-luck actress reduced to staging kids' puppet shows. He knows a dozen ways to kill his characters with his bare hands. She knows a dozen ways to kill an audience with laughs. But she's not laughing now.

Annie Hewitt has arrived on Peregrine Island in the middle of a snowstorm and at the end of her resources. She's broke, dispirited, but not quite ready to give up. Her red suitcases hold the puppets she uses to make her living: sensible Dilly, spunky Scamp, and Leo, the baddest of bad guys. Her puppets, the romantic novels she loves, and a little bit of courage are all she has left.

Annie couldn't be more ill prepared for what she finds when she reaches Moonraker Cottage or for the man who dwells in Harp House, the mysterious mansion that hovers above the cottage. When she was a teenager, he betrayed her in a way she can never forget or forgive. Now they're trapped together on a frozen island along with a lonely widow, a mute little girl, and townspeople who don't know how to mind their own business.

Is he the villain she remembers, or has he changed? Her head says no. Her heart says yes.

It's going to be a long, hot winter.

Fans of Susan Elizabeth Phillips never know what to expect from one book to the next. From football, to computers, to matchmaking to the English nobility, she has done it all. My favorite book in terms of originality is Natural Born Charmer—it is not often that a hero meets his love interest while she is wearing a beaver costume.

But Heroes are my Weakness surpasses even that high mark. With tongue-in-check satire, Phillips takes us back to the books of our youth, books that we delightfully devoured with our heart in our throat, never knowing until the end if the heroine’s love interest was a hero or villain. Of course I am talking about the Gothic romance as in the works of Mary Roberts Rinehart and Victoria Holt:

Harp House rose before her, silhouetted against the pewter sky. Rooted in granite, exposed to summer squalls and winter gales it dared the elements to take it down. The island’s other summer homes had been built on the more protected eastern side of the island, but Harp House scorned the easy way. Instead it grew from the rocky western headlands far above the sea, a shingle-sided, forbidding brown wooden fortress with an unwelcoming turret at one end.

Everything was sharp angles; the peaked roofs, shadowed eaves, and foreboding gables. How’d she loved this Gothic gloom when she’d come to live here the summer her mother had married Elliott Hard. She’d imagined herself clad in mousy gray dress and clutching a portmanteau, gently born, but penniless and desperate, forced to take the humble position of governess. Chin up and shoulders back, she’d confront the brutish (but exceptionally handsome) master of the house with so much courage that he would eventually fall hopelessly in love with her. They’d marry and then she’d redecorate.

Not only is the setting unique, but so is the heroine. In fact, she is very much like a gothic heroine with a twist—a ventriloquist twist. With her trusty puppets at her side, Annie Hewitt is returning to the place of her worst nightmares. The place where Theo, her step-brother for a moment in time, provided solace to her wounded, neglected fifteen-year-old self. Until he turned on her, and attempted to kill her. (There is a reason why she has a puppet named Theo Leo).

Theo’s father Elliott and Annie’s mother Mariah were only married for a short time, but Mariah fell in love with Peregrine Island, a small island off the coast of Maine, and a cottage on the Hart Estate. As part of the divorce settlement Mariah and her heirs are given the cottage—but with stipulations. It must be occupied once a year for at least sixty consecutive days or it reverts back to the Hart Estate. Destitute after using all her savings to make Mariah’s life easier after her cancer diagnosis, and then subsequent death, Annie has no choice but to return to the place of her biggest heartache and torment. Plus on her death bed, Mariah told Annie that somewhere in the cabin is an object that will provide Annie with financial security for the rest of her life.

And of course like all good gothic heroines, Annie arrives in the dead of winter, traveling through a raging winter blizzard. It is a good thing she has her puppets for company –then again maybe not:

You know Annie had no choice but to come here, Dilly said.

Because she’s a big failure, an unpleasant male voice sneered.

Leo had a bad habit of uttering Annie’s deepest fears, and it was inevitable that he’d intrude into her thoughts. He was her least favorite puppet, but every story needed a villain

Very unkind, Leo, Dilly said. Even if it is true.
The petulant Crumpet continued to complain. You’re the heroine Dilly, so everything always turns out fine for you. But not for the rest of us. Not ever. We’re doomed! Doomed. I say!

The gothic vibe continues as Annie, struggling to keep her car on the road, encounters a man clad in black on a midnight horse:

She’d always had a vivid imagination—witness her internal conversations with her puppets—and she thought she was imagining this. But the vision was real. Horse and rider racing through the snow, the man leaning low over the horse’s mane streaming. They were demon creatures, a nightmare horse and lunatic man galloping into the storm’s fury.

Of course Annie’s second meeting, only makes her question further if she is losing her mind:

The master of the house stood at the top of the stairs.

He descended slowly. A Gothic hero come to life in a pearl gray waistcoat, snowy white cravat, and dark trousers tucked into calf-hugging black leather riding boots. Hanging languidly at his side was a steel-barreled dueling pistol.

An icy finger slithered down her spine. She briefly considered the possibility that her fever had come back—or her imagination had finally shoved her over the cliff of reality.

Fans of Phillips's The Great Escape and Lucy Jorik will enjoy Annie’s young at heart antics. And of course, if you are fan of Gothics, you can’t help but chortle over this witty spoof.



Learn more about or order a copy of Heroes Are My Weakness by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, available August 26, 2014:

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Leigh Davis, blogger
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Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Lee Brewer
1. LeeB.
This book definitely kept me reading and I enjoyed the winter setting of Maine though I definitely wouldn't want to experience it myself. ;)
Ela Raymundo
2. ERromance
Wouldn't it be nice to see pictures of the puppets? That would be nice.
3. bic
I feel like this isn't classic SEP, along the lines of Chicago Starts, there's a tonal shift. It could be point to a new direction for her as a writer. I felt like Annie and Theo's story was both grislier (which goes with the gothic theme) and sweeter than SEP's other couples.

I loved how Annie used her ventriloquist training for good and evil both(cue evil cackle), the play on the haunted house, the twists on both present day mysteries. I didn't guess either and that's great. I notice that once again there's no secondary romance and while some of her secondary couples are my favorites, it feels right for this book.

ERomance, I agree about seeing the puppets. Especially in the ways Theo posed them.
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