Charming Grace
by Deborah Smith, contemporary (2005)
Warner, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-61479-3

While Charming Grace is still powerfully written enough to knock me off my feet, this is also a very frustrating book to evaluate. This book feels like pages from two very different stories glued together on a same spine. The first two parts are typical emotional stuff from this author, although Ms Smith is becoming repetitious when it comes to her plotting and characters. And then comes the wacky Elmord Leonard kind of comedic crime caper parts, with the romance all but completely pushed to the backburner. After following Grace Bagshaw Vance and Boone Noleene fall in love so hard, I want to scream when these two decide to put a hold on their relationship in favor of Hollywood-style capers. Not that these capers aren't entertaining but I want to scream anyway because I've been wrenched from one story and rudely shoved into another story and that is so disruptive.

It is hard to offer a complete picture of the story Ms Smith tells in her books and Charming Grace is no different. There are always so many things to tell, discuss, and dissect - so many powerful scenes that I just have to reread again after my first reading because they make me laugh, sigh, or even shed tears, so many colorful and delightful characters, so many things these characters do that are sometimes outlandish at first but so appropriate upon further consideration... so many things, really.

The best I can do is to say this. Grace is a widow to Harp Vance. Harp died while trying to take down a serial bomber on the roof of a hospital and his death was captured and televised in horrifying life coverage on the news. Today, the action star Stone Santerra decides to make a movie on Harp's life. Unluckily for Grace who doesn't want to see a Hollywood movie dumb down her late husband's story, Stone doesn't need her approval to get the movie project Hero greenlighted. Her friend (now ex-friend, obviously) wrote a tell-all book about Harp and Grace so all Stone has to do is to buy the rights to this book, which is what he has done. But Stone, a true-blue macho man who for all his faults actually idolizes Harp, is insistent on having his late hero's widow blessings and cooperation. Grace isn't going to budge. But when Grace meets Stone's bodyguard Boone, sparks fly between the both of them. But so many things stand in their happily ever after, the movie just being one of the many hurdles they have to overcome to get there.

The inadequate summary doesn't encompass even half of the cast or the quirky turns and twists the plot often takes. I'd leave it to any interested reader to savor the book for herself because I've always found that reading a Deborah Smith book is often more satisfying when I know little about the story and just let Ms Smith sweep me along. Serendipity is always a big part of the fun that is this author's books and Charming Grace is definitely a Deborah Smith book.

Like most of this author's books, the hero is a larger-than-life character with a tortured past, an artistic talent that only the heroine and a few other people are aware of, and it is love at first sight for him when he sees the heroine. In this case, Charming Grace is different in that there are two of such heroes in Grace's life - Harp Vance and Boone Noleene. In flashbacks, I get to know Harp as a lonely kid with abandonment issues who grows into a man with such deep scars in his psyche that he is afraid of the dark and he clings to his wife Grace, whom he has loved since they were children, even as he tries to fit in to her privileged world and even save the world in the process. The contrast between the man whose soul is wounded so badly inside and the heroic loner who only lives for the woman he loves imbues Harp with breathtakingly poignant qualities that can make a Hemingwayian machoman proud. Boone is a slightly more adjusted Harp in that he has a rough childhood and spent some time in jail but he is fortunate to be taken in by Stone as one of his pet charity projects. By taking care of the family pig (don't ask) and reluctantly warming up to his newfound surrogate family, he manages to get his life back on track. Like Harp - like a typical Deborah Smith hero - when Boone falls in love with Grace, it is at first sight, irrevocably and absolutely. He may as well sold his soul to Grace. Unlike Harp who seemed to need Grace in order to function, Boone however is a more "normal" boyfriend in that he can give back to as much as he takes from Grace in their relationship.

But that's just my analysis of these men. Grace doesn't have to choose between those two men and Boone doesn't demand that she does. Grace is a typical Deborah Smith heroine in that she is a too-wise bratty kid who took a shine to the underprivileged Hart, she is intelligent, and she will fight tooth and nail to the bitter end to defend the ones she loves. But what makes this book different from any of her previous books is that in Charming Grace, Grace has to deal with her memories of Hart even as she falls for Boone. This aspect of the story is the one that resonates the most with me because Ms Smith creates an exquisitely vivid and complex emotional dilemma for Grace from which there can be no easy answers found. The scene where Grace and Boone make love for the first time is achingly sweet but also heartbreaking at the same time because the both of them are always aware of the ghost of Hart hovering over them. Grace's feelings and thoughts in that scene were stripped bare to the reader that I find myself crying for her. Most romance novels would have the widowed heroine dimissing her late husband as some loser in bed. Even in the rare case where the heroine loves her late husband, I've never come across too many instances where the author succeeds so well in describing the heroine's complicated emotions when she finally lets another man touch her.

Unfortunately, by the second half of the book, Boone and Grace come up with some artificial reason to stop dealing with each other romantically. Instead, Grace's feud with Stone becomes the main focus, as does Boone's relationship with his still-imprisoned brother Armand and other members of his estranged clan that pop up to join the fun. Ms Smith demonstrates that she can be as good with comedy as she is with drama but the exaggerated, over-the-top confrontation with the bad guys involving helicopters and all is, while funny, completely ridiculous. Also, Grace and Boone start to get on my nerves when she starts steamrolling over him and makes decisions about his life without consulting him while he starts dancing to the drums of martyrhood where his family and Grace are concerned. Fortunately, the last few chapters following the farcical showdown with gangsters see the author back getting in shape.

On the bright side, this book isn't heavy to bursting point with symbolisms. On the down side, some of the dialogues, especially those coming from kiddies, come off as stilted and unneccessarily bombastic.

Charming Grace has the author taking things easy and dishing out the one-liners and jokes as if she's been doing this all along. And for the first half of the story, she manages to retain the powerful drama of her stories that makes me a fan of her stories. But this book on the whole is too disjointed in its transition from a typical Deborah Smith comfort read to a wacky caper involving naughty ex-cons, stupid mobsters, deus-ex-machina characters coming to save the day, and an over-the-top happy aftermath so farcical that the farce itself is a campy sort of genius to be savored. If these two very different parts are evaluated separately, both demonstrate Ms Smith's versatility when it comes to making me laugh out loud or making my toes curl and my heart beat faster as I sigh in rapture, "Oh my, it's so romantic yet so heartbreaking, I don't know whether to laugh or cry!" But put them together, however, and I find myself feeling disoriented. This book has everything a fan can enjoy as well as pleasant revelations about Ms Smith's approach to comedy and crime capers (maybe that Southern mystery series won't be such a bad idea after all). It's too bad that none of these come together as coherently as I'd like things to be.

Rating: 85

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