I put off reading Heroes Are My Weakness for a long time. Susan Elizabeth Phillips is one of my favorite authors, and for years her contemporaries were the only time I ventured outside of historical romances, but this gothic-inspired standalone got lackluster reviews when it first came out and many fans lamented its darker tone compared to her usual zany, fun style. Once I started it in preparation for listening to her next book, though, I found the same spirit of ridonkulous humor, addictive storytelling, and endearing characters that I love about all her books.
Annie Hewitt is a down-on-her-luck ventriloquist (yes, really) traveling to Peregrine Island, a tiny remote lobster fishing community off the coast of Maine. For Complicated Inheritance Reasons, Annie has to occupy a small cottage on the estate of her ex-stepfather for several months, and since she's spent her last dime (and then some) caring for her recently deceased mother and lost her regular gigs due to a spectacularly ill-timed bout of pneumonia, Moonraker Cottage is the only place she has left to go. To her deep displeasure, Annie soon learns that the big house on the estate is occupied by her ex-stepbrother, Theo Harp, the first boy she experimented with as a teenager, the first boy she kind of loved, and the first boy who tried to kill her.
Theo Harp is back at Harp House to work on his next blockbuster horror novel and get away from the memories of his wife's suicide. Seeing Annie again awakens all his old feelings of guilt over their disastrous summer together, pain over the loss of his twin sister in college, as well as the inconvenient pull he has felt towards Annie since they met as teenagers.
So as readers, we know that Theo is the hero rather than the villain (he's the only guy mentioned on the back of the book and we get his POV sometimes), but the narrative keeps his motivations and their past mysterious. There is one aspect of the Harp family situation that makes everything pretty clear, though, and seriously, if I found it obvious then even a half-sentient puppet could. (And please keep any half-sentient puppets far, far away from me.) Despite the predictable aspects of these well-worn gothic tropes, I always felt like Phillips was having affectionate fun with them rather than just rehashing old cliches.
Theo's the kind of hero who broods and takes long rides on his horse through the snow in 19th century period garb in order to get into character for writing, but I enjoyed his dry tone quite a bit, as well as his moments of hidden sweetness. Though Annie views him as a psychopath for a while, their banter is sharp and sexy, and the way he handles the puppets is particularly hilarious. Because of the somber mood and the heavy issues Theo is dealing with, he comes across as a much less arrogant and competitive alpha male than most of Phillips' heroes, and while I love those, I really appreciate the change and Phillips' take on the loner bad boy jerk hero. I also enjoyed seeing the hot stepbrother trope explored in a gothic setting.
Phillips is fond of heroines at the end of their rope or turning over a new leaf, and Annie is a classic example of a woman who's lost everything (except her beloved puppets.) I started out being creeped out by the puppets (and thinking Annie was crazy for having actual conversations with them in her head), to finding the puppets funny, to loving the puppets. Now we're cool. It helped for me to think of them more as hand puppets or marionettes rather than realistic ventriloquist dummies, because that is just straight up the stuff of nightmares. And honestly, Phillips treats them rather like hand puppets in their incredible mobility and the general lack of terror people and children seem to have at their appearance. Aside from just being comic relief, though, the puppet Leo, Annie's sneering villain character, starts to sound more like a hero as he mirrors her changing feelings for Theo. It's a beautiful and unique way to show her growing love in such a complicated situation, and I appreciate that Phillips doesn't hit us over the head with Leo's obvious similarities to Theo--aside from their names rhyming, their connection is never mentioned. (Although I squeed when Theo voices him in the Epilogue!)
This is the first Phillips I've listened to before reading, and for the most part I found narrator Erin Bennett to be a good fit. I'm a big fan of Phillips' earlier audios narrated by the late, great Anna Fields, so it's hard for new narrators to match up. While Bennett didn't wow me at first, I came to really admire how distinct her voices were for the puppets as well as a pretty large cast. However, I was incredibly disappointed when she totally drops the ball for one of the most emotional lines in the whole book! It’s just so jarring and ruins her already well-established puppet Leo voice during a major revelation scene, so unfortunately it really sticks in my mind. Still, I wouldn't shy away from listening to Bennett again; she delivers a solid, professional performance overall.
Heroes Are My Weakness is a wonderful celebration of the gothic romance, winking at classics such as Jane Eyre and evoking warm reminisces of every girl's reading journey with references to Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis Whitney. I enjoyed revisiting the gothic tropes that seem mostly campy now and watching Phillips turn them on their head. Aside from the addition of a couple creepy suspense elements, the humor the author is known for is still strong, especially in one-liners and the crazy antics of the townspeople (and puppets.) I can wholeheartedly recommend Heroes Are My Weakness as a great addition to Phillips' oeuvre of romance.