by Maggie Osborne, historical (2003)
Ivy, $6.99, ISBN 0-8041-1991-0
Maggie Osborne's Shotgun Wedding is simultaneously the author's strongest and weakest book to date. Please bear with me as I try to explain. But first, the synopsis.
Set in what I would assume on the late 19th century (the author never actually sets a specific time frame), this story begins with our heroine Annie Malloy realizing that she is pregnant. The only daughter of a well-respected couple in smalltown Marshall, Kansas, she has been infatuated with the doctrines of the New Modern Woman thanks to her avid reading of the Modern Woman's Manifesto. Believing herself a New Modern Woman, she blithely allows herself to have an affair with a man she believes to be a traveling salesman. They took precautions, but still, Annie's pregnant. Oh dear.
What I really like about this story is that the author allows Annie to behave just like what a young woman that finds herself unexpectedly pregnant may behave - Annie doesn't immediately goes on a self-righteous "I will be a noble, gladly suffering single mother - YOU AIN'T TAKING MY BABY AWAY!" rampage. She panics, she goes into denial, and heavens, she even hopes that the baby will magically disappear. She wants to die. She prays for a miscarriage. When the actual consequences of her affair hit her in the face, she doesn't know what to do. Annie is a woman that is way out of her depths here.
Our hero is the new sheriff, Jesse Harden. He has always been infatuated with Annie. One day he decides to court her, but Annie, panicking over her impending mommyhood, turns him down. When word of Annie's pregnancy spreads though and people remember that Jesse has been seen pursuing Annie in public, it doesn't take long before everyone starts to suspect poor Jesse as the father of her baby. In the end, Annie has no choice but to marry Jesse and Jesse, well, he's a man that is willing to overlook Annie's indiscretion as long as she and he can have a chance at making it to the happily ever after. Won't he be surprised when Annie's lover - the outlaw Bodie Miller whom Jesse is after - starts showing up and wanting Annie to come back to him.
Jesse is a hero that is probably a little too good to be true. His mother Ione bore him out of wedlock and now Jesse is determined that Annie's child will not suffer the same fate as he did. He also respects women, views his own mother as the ideal New Modern Woman, falls for Annie because he believes her to be intelligent, opiniated, and spirited, views Annie's indiscretion as an understandable need for her to explore her sexuality, loves her mother, loves his mother, saves the town from bad guys - hey, where can I buy two of these guys for myself? While he's at it, he's also way, way more patient with Annie that any sane man would be. I like this guy. He's a superhero guy that's also a complete pushover when it comes to love. When I'm in the mood to be spoiled and pampered by a man, I'd want Jesse to be in the starring role.
Annie, on the other hand, is an aggravatingly annoying heroine. I can emphatize with her at the start of the book. A pregnancy out of wedlock is a Very Big Thing with Really Dire Consequences in a smalltown, and it is painful to see her father (aspiring to be Mayor) and mother (aspiring to be the town belle of the ball) blackball and guilt-trip her to protect their own reputations in the town. I don't agree with these parents' decisions or actions, but I can see where they are coming from. That's what I love about this book: Ms Osborne's characters behave in ways that I may not agree with entirely, but she lets me understand why these people are acting and thinking the way they do. Unfortunately, Annie doesn't seem to grow up at all as the story progresses. How she ineptly hogs secrets can be a painful read. Again, I can see where she is coming from - I have no idea either how I will tell the man I am falling in love with that the father of my baby wants me back and oh, honey, guess what - he wants to kill you, heh heh heh. But Annie goes about hogging secrets while acting like a spineless and naive doormat. When she fumbles, she always ends up crying and wailing that yes, everything is her fault, et cetera. It gets to a point where I wish she would just shut up and start acting like an adult for once. Jesse, as I've said, is far more patient with her than any other person would.
I love how the author portrays Annie's relationships with her mother Helen and her mother-in-law Ione. Annie and Helen have their differences, but in the end they love each other. Ione and Annie bond because it's obvious that Annie is a much more immature version of Ione who has undergone the same experiences as Annie. Helen and Ione also bond when their children marry - another nice touch. The entire town rally to push Jesse into going back to Annie later in the story. This is really cute and I laugh out loud when the mayor Hiram says, "Look, pregnant women are crazy. They can't help it. That big belly drains the sanity right out of their heads, and women think strange to begin with. The point is, whatever it is that you're fighting about, you can work it out. So you go home, son, and you tell her that she's beautiful, she's the best cook in the world, you worship her very shadow, and whatever happened is all your fault and you are sorry as hell about it." I'm seriously considering moving to that place: all the men there seem to be born Pamperers and Indulgers Of Womyn And They Always Say The Right Things. Unfortunately, while it is pretty nice to read about men that pamper and adore their women so much, the last thing Annie needs in this case is to have her naivete and silliness indulged by too-understanding men.
Bodie is one of this book's strengths as well as weaknesses: he takes up as much space in this story as Annie and Jesse's relationship. As a result, Jesse's love for Annie is underdeveloped: he's just written that way as someone that loves Annie; I have no idea why he comes to realize that he loves Annie so much. Annie loving Jesse is a no-brainer - a man like Jesse, what's not to love? - but Jesse loving Annie is a conundrum. Bodie's obsession with Annie, however, is one that I find pretty sexy. Call me twisted but any guy that chases after Annie for all the wrong reasons so singularly like Bodie is okay with me. I am seriously annoyed that Ms Osborne chooses to demonize and ultimately punish poor Bodie - who's actually Annie's counterpart in immature behavior - by turning him into a psycho instead of introducing an older woman that will spank naughty little Bodie into behaving properly.
Readers that take issues with sexual heroines and especially heroines pregnant with another man's kid will not like this book, although they will be missing out on some good times here. Annie is this book's weakest link and the author's light-hearted approach to resolving the drama between Annie and Jesse only serve to downplay the potential emotional impact of the story. As a result, Shotgun Wedding is weaker than the author's previous books when it comes to delivering emotional drama. But at the same time, this book also showcases some great female bonding and a really too-good-to-be-true hero whose behavior nonetheless often elicits a chuckle from me in just how real his speech patterns and actions are as those of a loving husband that is often exasperated when his wife does something silly. Jesse is a very attractive Mr Nice Guy and Bodie is his perfect balance. If there is a man that's a combination of both Bodie and Jessie, please send him my way - I have first dips, thanks.
I must commend Ms Osborne for tackling themes in her stories that are often complex. The unfortunate result from this is that the huge audience that go for simple, uncomplicated, and unadventurous books by Stephanie Laurens will turn their backs on Ms Osborne - she has yet to receive that Bestselling Author tag to go under her name on the cover. Despite its flaws, there are enough good things about Shotgun Wedding to allow me to enjoy this book (although Annie doesn't make it easy for me). An author that doesn't get bestseller status is always living precariously, so to speak, and I can only hope that Ivy will be a little more patient with this author and give her time to build an audience. But for now though, romance novel reading seems a little bit livelier after I'm finished with Shotgun Wedding. Those men of Marshall, psychotic outlaws or superheroic lawmen, sure are very attractive creatures indeed.
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