by Julie Ortolon, contemporary (2007)
Signet, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22204-6
Unforgettable is an interesting case study of sorts because it is an unusual kind of missed potential. The hero's character becomes increasingly more well-defined as the story progresses, but at the same time the heroine starts out strong but her character degenerates at an alarming rate until she's a mere whimper of her former self by the last page. I don't know what happened to the heroine Riley Stone but her place in the story is pretty much ripped from her until she's pretty much a non-entity by the last page.
Years ago, Riley was happy to leave the town of Hope and her overzealous grandfather, but after years of playing with the band with little success at making it big, she has finally returned to Hope to accept a job of singing at the local restaurant-bar. Not that Riley has any regrets - this job offers a constant paycheck and hence a kind of security that playing with the band didn't offer in the past and besides, Hope is her home and she has come to terms with her past.
Hope is owned by the family that the town is named after. However, the current boss of the family has been neglecting the town while he's busy playing politics. His son and our hero, Jackson Hope, however loves the town and has hopes of rejuvenating the tourism trade that the town is heavily dependent on and restoring the town to its former glory. However, with the threat of bankruptcy looming over them all, Jackson feels that he has no choice but to sell the local music hall to folks who will turn it into a SaversMart.
Riley found love and happiness with the owner of the music hall during her teenage days so when she hears about how SaversMart is coming to town, she will not stand for it. She will marshal the troops and if she has to open a few cans of worms and expose some of the less pleasant secrets of the Hope family in order to get the music hall declared a historical marker, she'll do it. Alas, Jackson is her teenage crush, and you know things are when it comes to this kind of matter.
Riley starts out very strong as a refreshingly non-stereotypical small town girl who came home type of character as she doesn't bear the usual baggages that heroines like her tend to do. She's actually a very sunny person but when she has to galvanize into action and even resort to some blackmail for a cause that she believes in, she'll do it without hesitation. However, things quickly go downhill for Riley after a few chapters.
At first, we are talking about little things like how out of the blue Ms Ortolon has Riley announcing to Jackson that she is a virgin. It's not like she's saving herself for the right guy - no reason is given for her virgin status. She just happens to be a very attractive girl in the band who manages to remain a virgin after all these years. The thing is, the author doesn't have to even mention whether Riley is a virgin or not. She could have just let those characters do the their thing. Then again, I'm not a reader who insists on knowing every single detail of the heroine's sexual history before I can judge her worthy to grace my romance stories. I can only conclude that Ms Ortolon feels that she has to pander to the more militant segment of romance readers who believe that every romance heroine who isn't a virgin is an immoral slut. Don't laugh - only recently I received a long email from a reader who mistakenly believed that I was Jayne Ann Krentz and boy, that email was a blistering condemnation of the author for "selling out" to the "liberal crowd" because Ms Krentz apparently no longer hit the reader in her more recent books with the fact that the heroine is a virgin. Anyway, there are readers like that person out there, make no mistake.
But more significant than the "don't hate me, I have a hymen!" aspect of Riley's character is the degeneration of the woman's brainpower. Riley for some reason is the only person shocked that her unearthing the secret love affair of Jackson's grandfather with a bank robber woman might embarrass Jackson and she comes to this utterly obvious realization only after she's happily done the deed. In one fell swoop, Ms Ortolon has Riley morph from a no-nonsense activist into yet another stupid heroine who has acted without thinking. Even worse, Riley starts spending the rest of her time hoping that the secret will not come into light and she won't have to bear the guilt of ruining Jackson's life. Riley isn't just stupid now, she's also a lamentable sad heroine who abandons her principles without much thought for a pretty face. Of course, Riley's stupid act allows her to play the martyr. She can't marry Jackson! She has ruined his life! She can't!
Someone please catch her and hold her down so that I can drive some nails into her palms using a brick in order to give her the stigmata that she so clearly wanted.
And yet, one only has to look at Jackson to know that the unearthing of the so-called scandalous secrets only leads to the man being never more happy in his life as he finally breaks free of his father's shadow to value what he feels are more important than joylessly living up to an unappreciative parent's expectations: family, love, and home. Indeed, Jackson blossoms as a character as the story progresses and he begins to... well, it sounds corny but this fellow begins to learn what is really important to him. He actually takes over Riley's mission to save the music hall when the idiot woman decides that she'd rather play the self-flagellating and painfully whiny martyr. Seriously, as the heroine becomes increasingly painful to follow as she completely loses her mind, the hero turns into an adorable activist, catch of the season, gentleman of the year, and sex guru of all time all rolled into one cute guy in expensive suit.
Unforgettable has also many adorable secondary characters that manage to come off like sometimes wacky but still recognizably normal people instead of dotty caricatures gone wild. It's a pity, really, how this book could have been a very enjoyable and, yes, unforgettable cozy small town romance if the heroine didn't experience her brainpower hemorrhage and suck all joy from this story as a result.
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