by Shirley Jump, contemporary (2005)
Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7692-4
Unabashedly and unapologetically corny and sentimental, Shirley Jump's The Devil Served Tortellini is a deliciously subversive tale that seduces me into letting go of my allergy to too-sentimental tales and falling in love. In this story, the cast are Italian-Americans, where the women are undeniably feisty while the men are unbelievably romantic. Moonlit dances, serenades of love songs in the middle of dinner for no reason whatsoever other than because he loves her, and lots of delicious Italian food pack this story, making it a very hard book to read if one is on a diet.
Maria Pagliano is the only daughter of an Italian-American couple. Her mother is always trying to find ways, magical or mundane, to get Maria married to some handsome Italian man. However, Maria doesn't want to get married. While she loves her family, she doesn't think that life as a traditional Italian-American wife will suit her. When Maria decides to join a diet support group the Chubby Chums as a last moment desperate measure to slim down from size fourteen to maybe size eight - she wants to slim down in style to go to her high school reunion and rekindle her teenage affair with Antonio Lombardi, the then captain of the football team - she stumbles into the life of the chef Dante Del Rosso. For him, it is love at first sight and he woos her and her family with food, passion, and flowers until a sane woman will cave in and say yes. Not Maria though.
The first half of this book is keeper material. Ms Jump packs her story with meddlesome relatives comprising of absent-minded old male horndogs, meddlesome old women, bumbling good-natured ex-con, the young waitress with a heart of gold and a tough life, and other stereotypes but these secondary cast come together like pure gold. They don't truly meddle in ways that force the two characters together no matter what, they enhance the story to make me laugh without being intrusive. I really enjoy the secondary cast and Ms Jump succeeds very well in creating a network of friends and family members for Dante and Maria that resonate with love and laughter. Dante is sometimes too good to be true but he is a definite keeper. He can cook, he is open about his feelings for Maria, he loves her family, and he is a good boss. What's not to love? It is a quaint kind of irony that the one who is honest about his feelings comes from a somewhat unhappy home - Dante's mother always felt that her husband cared more for the restaurant Vita than her and after her husband's death and when she sees her son showing the same passion for Vita, she and her son eventually become estranged from each other.
Maria is an unusual heroine in the sense that while she has lovers in her past and she doesn't hesitate to declare that she feels desire for good-looking men. But as the story progresses, Ms Jump works around the clock to "repair" Maria so that romance readers who will no doubt BALK at such DISGUSTING and AMORAL behavior like HAVING SEX FOR FUN will not throw up and vow never to buy another Shirley Jump book again. Oh no, most of Maria's ex-lovers turn out to be lousy lovers! Maria turns out to be a basketcase of issues!
This book feels like a padded series novel because the conflict - Maria's reluctance to commit - soon stretches thin like a pancake that has been steamrollered a few times. I understand Maria's issues, such as her insecurities about her size or her fears that a traditional Italian-American husband would force her to stay in the kitchen with her coming out of it only to rush to the maternity ward. But these issues all crop up one by one, each showing up after the last has been conquered by Dante, to the point that not only does Maria never come off like a coherent character, Ms Jump is starting to come off like she's thinking up ways to prolong the story to meet the word count. Ultimately, I get impatient waiting for Maria to say yes to Dante. There is only so much repetitious push-and-pull between her and Dante before I get bored. In fact, late in the story when Maria pushes Dante away - again - I wonder what Dante is doing, being stringed along by Maria like a puppet. Does he have no self-respect? Then again, I have an issue with the people in this story, Dante included, not respecting the fact that Maria is on a diet and even doing their best to sabotage her at times because they think they know what is best for her. While it is unfortunate that it soon becomes apparent that Maria doesn't know what's best for her, I still feel a little twinge of unease that Maria's fears of being steamrollered by a traditional Italian-American husband may eventually come to be realized.
Still, for the first half of the book, I'm in heaven. I am laughing and sighing along with the characters, convinced that this book is a keeper. If The Devil Served Tortellini is shorter by a hundred pages and there is less repetitious circular games played between Dante and Maria, this book would be a true gourmet feast for the senses.
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