Fans of Vermont author Sarah Strohmeyer's four previous "Bubbles" books will be either alarmed or gratified at the title of her latest: Bubbles Betrothed suggests that the hair-stylist-turned-investigative- reporter-and-accidental-sleuth has finally gotten her handsome AP photographer boyfriend Steve Stiletto to muster the "M" word. Bubbles does indeed accept a large-carat Harry Winston ring, but as for the marriage,
Far be it from this reviewer to spoil the surprise. Every chapter in Strohmeyer's effervescent mystery offers up enough unexpected twists to keep the pages turning regardless of connubial outcomes. Such as the bizarre murder of a local high school principal, her suddenly fawning though still slimy ex-husband Dan, a thug who seems bent on Bubbles' demise, a punked-out daughter who goes missing, and a preacher's daughter with a very dangerous pastime. Strohmeyer just keeps getting better, and Bubbles Betrothed offers more frothy fun than Victoria's Secret.
If you've yet to experience the Bubbles phenomenon, allow me to introduce her: Bubbles Yablonsky is a statuesque babe with the closest human approximation of a Barbie-doll body and a penchant for clothes that admirably fulfill the promise of "tight and skimpy." And she's got the mind of someone who took, um, more than four years to get through Two Guys Community College -- this located in a former department store in the worn-out steel town of Lehigh, Pennsylvania.
But to say Bubbles is dumb would be just plain mean, and not entirely accurate. A longtime employee of the House of Beauty, she is naturally nosy as well as observant; between the ladies' ear-to-the-ground gossip and her womanly instincts, Bubbles has know-how that make her a natural in a newsroom -- or at a crime scene. So what if she's a little dim on certain vocabulary words. Oh, and she's also got the pluck of a Marine and a heart as big as her bleached-blonde hair-do. That's not to say she's above flipping careless motorists the bird from the window of her decrepit, graffiti-enhanced Camaro.
Bubbles is mother to Jane, who in this installment is a high schooler pining for Princeton. She's got the brains, if not exactly the ancestral advantage, for the Ivies. She's also got brilliant pink hair and numerous piercings, and a clueless boyfriend who goes by the single letter G -- "for God or genius, depending." A vegetarian with high ideals, Jane is generally the most grounded, "real" character in the series. To Bubbles she's the only positive outcome of an ill-advised, unprotected quickie with a frat boy who had beer cans strapped to his head. Marrying the guy didn't turn out as well.
Bubbles worked her well-manicured fingers to the bone to put Dan through law school, only to see him leave for a cheese-snack heiress and change his name to Chip in order to sound more WASP-y. Though he's a constant source of irritation and exasperation for Bubbles, Dan is not a bad father. And when Jane is kidnapped, the exes find reason to bond -- sort of.
The love of Bubbles' life, though, is Steve Stiletto, who's as impossibly perfect physically -- think Mad Max-era Mel Gibson -- as he is elusive. Those exciting overseas assignments keep calling. So do all those other women. But Stiletto claims to be crazy about Bubbles, and since she abandoned her vow of chastity a couple books back, they have managed to squeeze a little sex in between the escapades:
In the week that he'd been away I'd forgotten how broad those shoulders were. Muscular and smooth. Not a hair on them. Just defined tendons that continued up his strong neck.
Wouldn't you know it, next thing I knew the only thing covering my thighs were Stiletto's hands. Like in a bad movie, the windows were fogging up and we found ourselves in the back entwined between his ratty photo bag and half a month's worth of New York Times scattered over our naked bodies.
Strohmeyer's prose is fast-paced and witty, and she draws even her secondary and tertiary characters with enough devilish detail to make them fully and often humorously human. Much of the series' zaniness comes from the antics of Bubbles' scrappy Polish-Lithuanian mother LuLu and her musket-wielding, conspiracy-theorist best friend Genevieve. This time around they play lesser roles, however, presumably busying themselves with planning Bubbles' wedding at the Polish American Club.
In Bubbles Betrothed, our heroine has finally left the salon and landed a full-time position at the News-Times, where she has to contend with a slothful, arrogant fellow reporter and rookie assignments such as municipal meetings and Madonna sightings. But the book begins with an accidental journalistic coup when Bubbles finds herself inadvertently tossed into jail with "Popeye," a psychotic homeless woman who's been accused of murdering Principal Schmidt. As Popeye talks, Bubbles takes notes. And after Popeye suddenly drops dead, everyone -- from the cops to a Polish mobster to a mysterious podiatrist on the lam -- wants to get hold of her notebook. No doing, of course; journalists have their rights. Bubbles hides her notes where no one would think to look: at the House of Beauty.
Strohmeyer keeps multiple subplots going like a world-class juggler, and interconnects them in ways that only occasionally feel forced. She also provides the color of place, and vernacular of speech, that paint a picture of Lehigh and its working-class, mostly Eastern European residents:
It was late November gray going on dark and miserable. That happens to be the average forecast for the Lehigh Valley, by the way. Dark and miserable with pockets of acid rain. If that sounds depressing, think again. "Dark and miserable" means "pollution," and "pollution" means the steel plant is still chugging and that means there'll be dinner on the table. We usually feel flush when the sun's gone...
While our front yards on West Goepp won't win any House Beautiful awards, our postage-stamp gardens in the back are freaking cornucopias in the summer. Tomatoes, beans, and zucchini -- enough to make all sorts of pickles, breads, and relishes. We tend not to eat our fresh vegetables fresh in Lehigh. We'd rather boil them in jars until they're mush, and throw them in later with overcooked meat...
Details like these give Strohmeyer's novels a reasonably realistic foundation, over which she constructs all manner of wacky goings-on. As told by Bubbles, these passages also show us the wry affection she holds for her down-at-the-heels town and its motley inhabitants. For all its flaws, it's home. And for all her carefully made-up beauty, Bubbles remains an appealingly vulnerable heroine: She's a working-class underdog who always has to prove herself. She's funny. She's loyal and responsible. And, like most of us, she screws up on a regular basis.
The Bubbles books are not for everyone; for one thing, the girly details -- including recipes for homemade skin-care products -- probably keep most guys away. (Never mind "Dan's No-Fail Antisweat Method for Men" in this volume.) And those readers who prefer mysteries filled with gritty, gruesome crimes and forensics-based solutions should look elsewhere.
But there are, apparently, plenty of "Bubblesheads" awaiting this author on her book tours. And Strohmeyer, a former news journalist who resides in Montpelier, can now confidently count herself among the ranks of mystery novelists with a series based on a compelling female protagonist. Even if she never writes another, five is a respectable body, er, book count. Of course, her closest kin in the comedy-mystery department, Janet Evanovich, has laid down the authorial gauntlet with twice that many volumes and an expanded franchise in other formats.
When interviewing Evanovich, the creator of the popular Stephanie Plum series, for a newspaper article years ago, Strohmeyer confided her desire to write similar books. Evano-vich -- a fellow Pennsylvania native -- suggested the title Bubbles Unbound. When it came out in 2001, the book won Best First Mystery from the Agatha Awards. It was in a sense an extension of Strohmeyer's earlier book, Barbie Unbound: A Parody of the Barbie Obsession, which she claims to have written while staying home with baby number two and suffering from cabin fever. That book became a cult hit.
After her mystery debut, Bubbles in Trouble, Bubbles Ablaze and Bubbles A Broad followed in rapid succession. The series hasn't quite achieved Harry Potter-level acclaim. But after reading Bubbles Betrothed, Strohmeyer's fans will no doubt be waiting, like expectant brides, to take the next step.