Monday, July 2, 2012

Review: Great-Aunt Sophia's Lessons for Bombshells by Lisa Cach

Sex and beauty are power. They hold vast potential. But as women have reached for equal standing with men, sometimes this truth has been lost or discounted, even actively shunned. However, that does not make it any less true. And reconciling this truth with modern women’s studies can be a struggle, especially when sexuality and physical beauty are only seen as destructive or belittling forces. In Lisa Cach’s highly entertaining novel Great-Aunt Sophia’s Lessons for Bombshells, this pull between what is considered entirely superficial and the perceived deeper intellectual makes for a ripping good read.

Grace Cavanaugh is writing her Women’s Studies dissertation. Her topic: that beauty does not lead to happiness for women; in fact it leads to great unhappiness. And she whole-heartedly believes her thesis. So when her elderly great-aunt, a former B-actress and still a great beauty, asks for her to come live with her in her lush Pebble Beach mansion and be her caretaker while Sophia recovers from hip replacement surgery, Grace figures that she has discovered the perfect research subject. But when she arrives in Pebble Beach, she finds a woman who is far more complex and enchanting and far less unhappy and lonely than she had ever imagined.

When Sophia challenges Grace’s ideas and suggests an experiment, a bet of sorts, to prove that Grace is mistaken in her assumptions, Grace agrees to the conditions, albeit with some misgivings. Grace must take instruction from her great-aunt in how to transform herself from the quietly pretty, earnest intellectual who spends no time on her own appearance into a stunning beauty who has her pick of men. Grace will practice her emerging vamp skills on the two young men who orbit Great-Aunt Sophia: gorgeous Neanderthal-ish financial advisor Declan, and quietly unassuming Doctor Andrew. In return, she can study Sophia to her heart’s content and even earn a substantial paycheck at the end of her time in Pebble Beach.

Grace struggles with her lessons, fearing that this transformation will cause her to lose all self-respect and brand her as frivolous, especially when she admits that she secretly enjoys the frothy beautiful clothing, the barely leashed sexual tension, and the heady feeling of directing the course of her fledgling relationships. But the course of these relationships does not always run smoothly and Grace cannot always see them for what they are. She is determined to pay Declan back for her humiliation from their first encounter, toying with him even as she is coming to find him irresistible. Meanwhile, Andrew is holding back, leaving her frustrated and irrationally angry that while he admires her intellectually, he stays so detached physically, just exactly what she has always professed to prefer and which would lend most credence to her thesis.

But Grace is learning about more than superficial beauty as she progresses through Sophia’s tutelage, even if she does not recognize it right away. She is coming to the transforming idea that beauty is fed from within. It comes from a powerful belief in one’s own attractiveness and inner worth that shines forth on the outside enhancing mere physical features. It’s a heady power indeed. And just perhaps she has underestimated the true value of outward appearance.

On the surface a frothy, humorous, and light story rife with sexual tension and graphically erotic scenes, this is actually an interesting look at an expanded feminism, one that embraces all aspects of a woman, celebrating the whole person, inside and out. The characters are fantastic and complete. Great-Aunt Sophia is particularly wonderful, a master manipulator, scheming and sly but loveable and genuinely charming. Declan and Andrew both have depths slowly revealed through the narration that causes the reader to choose sides long before Grace realizes their respective worths. The long-held family secret is revealed rather suddenly, abruptly and seems almost out of place but it does in fact play into the theme of appearances and how they can either enhance or obfuscate depending on how they are manipulated. Interspersed with Grace’s quasi-scientific field notes, the narrative clips along at a good pace with the reader wondering when Grace’s myopia will clear, allowing her to see what, in fact, has been evident all along. Despite Grace’s obtuseness and her determination to hold to her thesis even in the face of mounting evidence against it, every step of the way toward her changing perceptions is highly entertaining and engaging and the book is a pleasure to read.

Thanks to Gallery Books for sending me a copy of this book to review for their blog tour.

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