by Mary Campisi, contemporary (2002)
Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7281-3
You know, if you are tired of the xenophobic small-town and wacky matchmaking-crazy screwball Daddy's girl romances plaguing the contemporary subgenre, you may want to take a look at the Zebra contemporary line. I know, Zebra is synonymous for the complete absence of quality for a long time to many of us, but some of the better contemporaries I've read recently - Sandra Steffen and Janis Reams Hudson come to mind - are from Zebra authors.
Mary Campisi's Simple Riches is another addition to the near-keeper great reads list from the much maligned Zebra. The hero and the heroine are two of the most well-drawn human characters I've ever come across, and the people of small lumberjack town Restalline, Pensylvania come across as only-a-little matchmaking-dotty people who actually have their own lives, values, and beliefs. In short, the people here are all two-, maybe even three-dimensional.
The trouble is, the author can deal with heartwarming scenes just fine, but when it comes to developing the relationship between doctor Nick Androvich, Jr and resort development planner Alexandria Chamberlain, she resorts to painfully contrived misunderstandings and childish baitings. This is the same problem that plagues her last book Paradise Found.
The plot is basically Alex snooping around while planning to launch an offer on the Androvichs or the Kraziaks for their prime land. The Kraziaks manufacture furniture from the timber supplied by the Androvichs, so the reasoning here is that if Alex offers one of them a bid tantalizing enough for the family to accept, the other family will be cut off from their symbiotic economic relationship and offer their land at bargain bin price. With those two plots of land, well, here comes Big Swanky Resort! Whoopee!
When Alex doesn't expect is for her to fall in love with the whole town. Her conscience will be torn - can she let her company mow down the houses and trees for a Swanky Resort?
Alex is a nice heroine who, while being a miserable I-just-wanna-be-loved character, has a deeper and poignant reason for being so emotionally needy. The prologue reveals that she was an imaginative young girl who lost her parents too early and even today, there may be that little girl still lurking somewhere inside. Nick is a doctor turned breadwinner of his family, and the author does a magical job here with this man. His reasons to be a doctor is personal and noble, and his relationship with his family and son and even his late wife is so vividly rendered that I sigh in bittersweet delight, the way I always do when I encounter a flawed yet well-written character in a book.
The author also has a powerful way with emotional scenes. The scene where Nick tells a romanticized story of his wife's love story with him and her death to his son, juxtaposed with the real (pretty ugly) scene of Caroline's death playing in mind as he tells the story, affects me like nothing I've read in quite a while. I actually sob a little when Justin, the unsuspecting son, tells his father, "That was a great story."
Likewise, the population of Restalline can be a little too sweet, but the author also portrays the human side of these people. They could easily turn out to be one-note matchmakers in the hands of a lazier author, but Ms Campisi chooses to write little scenes of these people that show how much strength and flaws they have. When they accept Alex in the end as one of them, this is not some dotty satanic coven recruiting their latest sucker thing. These people have their flaws, strengths, and a set of beliefs and values that set them apart as people as real (as real as people in a romance novel can be, that is) as anything. When the tree-hugging thing could have been hysterically dumbed-down and melodramatic, Ms Campisi instead chooses to bring out the strong bond these people have with their past, memories, et cetera. Whether I agree or not with them, I can respect their way of thinking in this case, because Ms Campisi goes the extra mile to tell me what these secondary characters believe in and care about. That's good.
And yes, I'm actually sniffling a little that Alex has finally found a family at last.
Even Michael, Nick's brother, is an interesting character. His first scenes see him rubbing me off the wrong way, but he's the supposedly heartless guy who just has to fall in love with that girl he doesn't feel worthy of. Aww, bad boy alert!
Why isn't this book a keeper, you ask? See, I don't know why, but when you put Alex and Nick in the same scene, all joy is sucked out of the scene. Nick accuses Alex of nonsense, Alex bites back, they snipe and bitch, and I throw my hands up in the air in exasperation. Apart, I love these guys like they're my own giant bags of money. Put them together and my head start to pound in pain.
It's a strange paradox, really, Mary Campisi creating beautiful drama in everything but the main romance in her story. Misplaced priorities? The vacuum cleaner plugged the wrong way? Still, this book has me sniffling, sighing, and smiling like a canned dummy in the audience of Full House. If Alex and Nick don't bring out the worst in each other, I will be dancing on air for the next few days, happy that I've read a really great book. As it is, I find Simple Riches a very good book, but its flaw is too fundamental to be overlooked. It's the romance that's flawed, and in a romance novel, that is just screwed.
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