Sweetheart, Indiana
by Suzanne Simmons, contemporary (2004)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-19779-4

I notice a trend regarding Suzanne Simmons' books. No, not just that the same authors (her friends Jayne Ann Krentz, Elizabeth Lowell, and Stella Cameron) always endorse her books, it's that this author knows how to create characters that click so well together. I always hear people talking about lovers being two halves of a complete soul or something like that, and Suzanne Simmons actually operate on that principle where her characters are concerned.

Sweetheart, Indiana is a trademark, vintage, or however one calls it, Suzanne Simmons book. The main characters click so well together. On the other hand, the author is grasping at straws to give her story a conflict and the result is a truly juvenile suspense subplot that is more appropriate for a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Seriously, Scooby-Doo is the word especially where the revelation of the villain is concerned. Unfortunately, the villains in the cartoon have better and grander motivations for larceny than the villain in this book.

An heiress in a small town book, this one tells the story of Gillian Charles being forced by her late grandfather's will to stay for six months in Sweetheart, Indiana, population 11,238. Don't worry about forgetting the number as Ms Simmons will make sure that the reader remembers that number too well by the last page. This is how she meets Sam Law, a lawyer (well, well, I wouldn't have guessed from his name), a textbook case of former big city dude retreating to a smalltown to lick his wounds while playing that All City Gals Are Bitches song on his tiny violin when it's late and everyone else is trying to sleep.

Suzanne Simmons doesn't do one-dimensional cardboard characters so Gillian is naturally an intelligent, rational, sensible (if somewhat too gullible at times) heroine, a far cry from the kind of women Sam is demonizing on his puny violin. Here's where the conflict problem kicks in. For internal conflict, the author has Sam playing that song long after it's clear that Gillian is not what he assumes her to be. It is not just frustrating but also an irritatingly transparent contrivance when Sam keeps insisting that Gillian will leave (even when it's clear she loves Sweetheart) when the six-month period is up so they can't be.

The author's desire to have conflict also sees her creating a suspense subplot that really damages Gillian's character more than anything else. Gillian gets threatening messages from someone in Indiana and it is painful to see how Ms Simmons has Gillian jumping through hoops so that Gillian will have to rely on Sam instead of calling the cops to step in.

On the merit of the characters alone, Gillian is a likeable heroine and Sam, one-dimensional baggage and all, can still be salvaged. But Ms Simmons makes a huge misstep in the suspense subplot that dumbs down everything about this book to the level of a bad Scooby-Doo cartoon. Sweetheart, Indiana will be a great pleasant smalltown story if the overlong contrived conflicts faced by the characters are cut down and the book reformatted as a series novel. In its current format, there is too much of a carelessly padded feel to Sweetheart, Indiana.

Rating: 68

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