Bell Bridge Books, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-61194-379-5
Contemporary Romance, 2013
The Pickle Queen goes back to Asheville, North Carolina, the setting for many of Deborah Smith’s contemporary romances. If you are familiar with this author’s brand of stories, you should know the deal: this story is all about genealogy, the bonds of family, and romances so whimsical and fanciful that they almost cause the stories to leap into fantasy territory. While The Pickle Queen is book two of The MacBrides series, and it is linked to the author’s previous book The Crossroads Café, it has a standalone plot with little carried over from previous related stories. The story features a large cast of secondary characters, however, but these characters are new to the series, so that is a cross every reader, regardless of his or her familiarity with the series, has to bear.
Greta Garbo MacBride – please, call her Gabby – has an affinity for cooking, just like her siblings. The MacBrides, like their mother, can create most heavenly dishes ever, and Gabby’s specialty is pickles. Somehow, she can sense a person’s mood and knows just the kind of zesty bite that person is looking for. Like her parents, however, she and her siblings haven’t been dealt a fair hand by the fates. After the death of her mother, they were orphaned and, thanks to the machinations of the gruesomely evil EW Wakefield, they were ferreted away to some kind of home where she was molested. She had a crush on EW’s nephew Jay, but when she discovered that EW destroyed what was left of her family as retaliation for Jay refusing to give EW mining rights to the property EW wanted badly, she felt betrayed. You see, Jay was an orphan too, and he inherited some properties that EW wanted very badly. Jay tried to stand up to EW, and it did seem like the MacBride siblings paid the high price of his defiance in his stead.
That was then. Today, Gabby was involved in a high-profile and messy lawsuit involving her ex, and the ex is framing her for embezzlement. At the last minute, Jay, now a powerful moneyed dude who seemed to have tailored his icy scowl after a typical alpha billionaire of a Harlequin Presents book, extricates her from her mess and demands a price for his favor: she is to return to their hometown. Why? Still, she heads back home, right into Jay’s ongoing war of attrition with EW, who is also fighting with his daughter, with her and Jay’s cousins caught right in the middle. Can love save the day or will the bitter hillbilly circus end up taking everyone down with it?
The Pickle Queen reminds me a lot of Deborah Smith’s A Place to Call Home, because the dynamics of the relationship between Gabby and Jay are similar to that of the couple in the other book: the hero, now a moneyed man with some degree of social influence, manipulates the heroine into coming back to him… and then stalls the whole thing by deciding that he’d simply have to continue carrying out his plans even if it means letting the heroine think the worst of him. He’d take it up with her… later. This kind of development always makes me gnash my teeth in frustration, because it’s akin to being left dangling on a cliffhanger in a TV show by a commercial break that never ends. It’s not much of a romance when one party is determined to just brood and scowl.
This is a shame because the set up to Gabby meeting Jay again is a gripping one. Their entwined history is tragic yet over-the-top like a Bollywood drama, and I find myself intrigued by the whole mess, even if I feel that EW is tad too ridiculously evil to be taken seriously. Instead of lots of dramatic moments with Gabby and Jay screaming at one another, I get instead lots of scenes of Gabby being feted by various secondary characters mostly because of her family connections as well as a mystery involving a missing woman. That mystery is not the most exciting thing ever, as I can easily guess the whole thing the very first moment the author brings it up in this story.
The Pickle Queen starts out good, but as it continues, the story starts to become tedious. Still, this could be due to my impatience at the way the drama between Gabby and Jay stalls to make way for various drama involving the secondary characters. At the end of the day, I feel that I’ve been cheated of something good here. The story here is pretty readable – it’s basically what the author does best, only in a smaller dose compared to her full-length novels – but the set-up led me to believe that I’d be getting something better than I ended up being served with. Oh well, it’s just one of those days, I guess.