Home Again
by Annie Smith, contemporary (2002)
Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7370-4

I think that somehow when my back was turned, a new sub-subgenre is created within the contemporary romance subgenre - Schmaltz Porn. Schmaltz Porn isn't a romance as much as it is a trial of endurance for readers to see who is the last one standing after a massive influx of sugar into their blood stream. Unlike Trauma Porn, Schmaltz Porn doesn't revel in manipulative tragedies as much as it pours a massive feel-good heal-the-world mantra to the point of massive overkill.

There's Kimberly Cates, Geralyn Dawson, and Kristin Hannah who don't write contemporaries as much as they create nauseatingly saccharine glucose-coated tissue paper books filled with so much love and sunshine and epic motivational speeches disguised as conversations by unbearably perky wise old women, usually delivered to our miserable beautiful young people in need of the Truth. There are always children involved, usually dying, mentally handicapped, or traumatized children with special artistic abilities to draw Kinkade paintings or something of that sort. As the story usually ends with our dying kid miraculously healed and held in an embrace by our young, beautiful, and now enlightened hero and heroine as they stare at the sunset, the wise old broad or old man watching on from the background (or from the heavens if he or she turns out to be a guardian angel), as the muzak plays and I run to throw up into the toilet bowl.

Annie Smith's Home Again is another Schmaltz Porn story. Every chapter sees our annoyingly caring and perfect hero and heroine and their equally saintly friends and families shoving love and sunshine and merry, merry antidotes to my face that I feel like being ripped apart to pieces by rabid Carebears. Every secondary character says the right thing, does the right thing, and the heroine Sally Foster is not only the best kindergarten teacher ever - aaaw - she also buys everything Girl Guides and Boy Scouts sells and she loves children and while she worries about her parenting skills, she can do anything and everything. The hero Tanner Dodge, the best dog whisperer and trainer ever, is just as perfect, with amazing communication skills with animals and ever. Ironically, Sally calls Tanner a saint in this book.

They come together when Sally's friend Deborah and Deborah's husband Kevin were killed in an accident and Sally finds herself the guardian of Micah, Debbie's son who is severely injured from the same accident and who requires extensive physical therapy to recover some semblance of normal life. Sally decides to use Micah's beloved dog Sophie to help the fourteen-year old come out from his haze of depression, and to do this, she has to enlist the help of Tanner.

As the story progresses, kind and sainted aunts, friends, and mothers come in and go, bringing food, irritatingly sunny good advice, and love and understanding like the biggest love parade in the world. There is one sole bad woman, an aunt who wants to separate Sally from Micah for no obvious reason apart as a plot device to create yet one more nauseating "Auntie Sally loves you Micah, don't ever doubt it, I will love your forever and ever!" conflict. Good grief, I'm pretty sure my blood sugar levels must have streaked up to dangerous levels after reading this book.

But somehow I can't dismiss this book as easily as I did with other blatantly manipulative, heavy-handedly preachy Schmaltz Porn books. The tragedy that befell Micah is very real and not at all superficial like the usual plague of divorcee reunions or other contrived plots and the author succeeds very well in driving home that it can easily happen to any one of us. When I look at it from that context, the overbearing saccharine levels can be seen as a soothing reassurance to those who have undergone similar experiences that life sometimes isn't so bad.

And sometimes the author manages to strike home most painfully with me. This passage that describes Santa Sally's final goodbye to an unconscious Deb whom she knows deep inside will never make it is a culmination of a haunting scene in the hospital that actually moves me to tears. Ms Smith really captures perfectly the near-hysterical breakdown of grief warring with the need to stay composed and maybe even flippant in some denial of the inevitable, before resignation and maybe even acceptance set in for the momentary calm before the storm.

Suddenly, there was so very much Sally wanted to say and no time to say it. "Thank you for being such a terrific best friend. God, I'm gonna miss you!" It was so inadequate. There were no words for how much she would miss Deb. "I'll take care of Micah for you. I'll make you so proud of him. I promise. Cross my heart." She gently held Deborah's hand up and pressed their palms together, their childhood ritual. "Blood sisters to the last." And Sally knew that this was the last. "They're kicking me out now, Deb, so I gotta go. But I'll be right outside with Ethel." She bent down and kissed Deborah's cheek. "See ya later, alligator," she whispered, and because she listened so hard, she could almost hear Deborah calling back, as she had across hundreds of childhood nights, In a while, crocodile.

And of course, there are those dogs, beautiful, chubby happy dogs to make a dog lover the most happy reader on earth.

This book attempts to drive home issues of physical disabilities as well. Ultimately, though, the author loses all control of her tidal of wave of sugar and any effective moments of poignancy is lost when her prose unleashes a tsunami of overly sentimental scenes right down to the last word.

But just like how Deborah's In a while, crocodile resonates in Sally's memories, some powerful moments resonate with me long after the last of the sugar shock has ebbed. If there has been more restrain in the tampon commercial moments, Home Again would be a truly tailor-made great book for the dog lover in me, the romance reader in me, as well as me being someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one and still feeling melancholy about it even if I've come to terms with the loss. Too bad in the end the book makes me want to run for the hills instead.

Rating: 55

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