A January Chill
by Rachel Lee, contemporary (2001)
MIRA, $5.99, ISBN 1-55166-802-5

What is it with Cowboy Counties and the dysfunctional families that live in those places? Are authors like Joan Johnston and Rachel Lee trying to tell me something about cowboys and their families? Really, is catering to the soap opera fanbase that lucrative? Rachel Lee's latest, A January Chill, has a striking title (for a MIRA book) but its content is more of the same dysfunctionorama: secret baby (or rather, daughter), family feuds, philandering other men, and a hero who swings from a dead girlfriend to her half-sister. These dysfunctional blues are a 25-car pile-up spectacle accompanied with a high dose of predictability - a fatal recipe for mediocrity.

Joni Matlock is in love with Hardy Wingate. Witt Matlock, her uncle, blames Hardy for the death of his daughter Karen, who was Hardy's girlfriend. Karen died when a drunk driver ploughed into the car Hardy and Karen were in. Witt, the sole man helping Jodi's mother Hannah get her life together after Hannah's evil, cheating ex-hubby died, hence is like a father figure to Jodi, and Jodi is torn between obeying him or eloping with Hardy.

That is, if Hardy even wants to elope. He doesn't even seem to know that Jodi is hots for him, so intent is he on beating himself bloody over Karen's death. He could have done something! (Like levitating the car to make way for the drunk driver, perhaps?)

Hannah has a secret: Joni is actually Witt's daughter, conceived when Hannah slept with Witt years ago to get even with her husband.

Did you get all that? It took me awhile into the story, with the aid of a family tree I sketched on a newspaper page, to understand the whole inbreeding cycle going on in the small town of Whisper Creek. The author seems to assume that I know who's who, plunging me right into the action from the first page, and I am left to flounder for a while. Is this book part of a series?

Inbreeding and boink-your-sis'-boyfriend epic sagas aside, the story is direly familiar. Nobody will talk until the last few chapters. The obnoxious, deserves-to-have-a-burning-brand-stuck-up-his-nether-region Witt is given the opportunity to lord, boss, and downtrod everybody. Why not? Hardy welcomes the opportunity to be insulted, browbeaten, and downtrodden some more - he is, after, guilty for not levitating the car or teleporting Karen to Kathmandu when the drunken driver struck. If only he had the foresight to drag Karen with him to, say, Ulan Bator where they probably don't have drunken drivers! What Joni sees in him, I have no idea. It must be a genetic thing. Or maybe she loves a guy who loves to beat himself up and makes everyone around him miserable in the process.

Which, come to think of it, describes her daddy Witt too. And her mom Hannah as well. These fiftysomething folks have no excuse to behave in such lack of dignity, have they?

The happy ending comes after a rushed tell-all-session between everyone in last few chapters, complete with everyone's turnaround into being happy sunshines complete with sitcom big hugs. I don't buy it. In fact, the whole family is screwed, so intent on martyrhood and beating themselves up over everything that is wrong with their lives that I am pretty sure barely two months will have passed before something of Jerry Springer epic proportions will crop up. Everyone will then start blaming himself or herself or each other to even do any active remedial actions, and we will then have A March Iceberg.

Rating: 49

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