317 Beulah Street
by Sandra Steffen, contemporary (2003)
Zebra, $6.50, ISBN 0-8217-7132-9

In 317 Beulah Street, Sandra Steffen has a great thing going. The hero is a bit on the stereotypical prodigal black sheep boy returneth side, but the heroine is a widow who loves and cherishes her late husband. The hero is the heroine's brother-in-law who has always harbored seeds of a crush on her. The heroine's children aren't annoying. The secondary characters aren't screaming for me to buy their stories coming soon. In short, 317 Beulah Street is a nice, warm smalltown romance that stars a very likeable hero and a heroine who is more like a human being (albeit maybe a little too perfect) than a "romance heroine". With its focus on family dynamics and emotional bonding, 317 Beulah Street could have been a keeper if it's 100 pages shorter.

Nicholas Proffit is the black sheep of his family. I am still not sure as to why he's a black sheep, but he's one nonetheless. He left Harmony Hills when he was eighteen, and during the years he spent being a photographer (they're always photographers, aren't they?), he only returns once or twice, enough to know Jenna, the woman his saintly brother Craig married. Everyone loves Craig, including Jenna, so Nick tries so hard not to be envious.

Now, however, Craig is dead and worse, the lawyer has been accused of being an embezzler of half a million dollars from his employer soon after his death. Jenna, unable to defend herself or her late husband, is forced to live a life of genteel disgrace. Of course, my own definition of "ruined" is sleeping on the streets because one is homeless, but this book's definition of "ruined" sees Jenna running a luxurious bed-and-breakfast she lets out to people to maintain the place. Nick stays at the old-fashioned home, and as he tries to piece together Craig's downfall from saintliness, he and Jenna fall in love.

Nick is a very nice hero. He may be a black sheep, but he plays the role of the sensitive man who harbors a one-sided infatuation so well. He also knows how to play the misunderstood guy in a way that tugs at my heartstrings despite my cynicism. Jenna is a little bit too perfect as a person, a mother, and a schoolteacher, but if I delve a little deeper into her character, she, like her relationship with Craig, is actually everything that is not formulaic about a contemporary romance heroine. Craig doesn't take a postmortem fall so that Nick comes off smelling like roses. This is really a second time love for Jenna instead of a "I married the wrong guy for the wrong reasons, so take me now, hero!" tragic accident in the making. The author has her two very nicely written characters taking their time with their developing attraction, carefully defining their growing and changing emotions without sacrificing depths. I like this.

Unfortunately, the plot about Craig's embezzlement could have been handled better. Instead of focusing enough attention on Nick and Jenna, the author instead pads pretty much the middle portions of this book with subplots revolving the tenants in Jenna's inn. The pace is also excruciatingly slow, as Nick seems to take three chapters just to make his way from one end of town to the other end. The middle portions of this book will require patience, unless the reader has an affinity for scenes of pleasant people taking their own sweet time to meander around. The slow pace is also frustrating because there is a sense of the author deliberately dragging things out. It actually takes four chapters from Jenna telling Nick that she will explain about Craig to go to her finally explaining about Craig to Nick. Nick spends what seems like two-thirds of the book meandering around until he learns of a woman who is in love with Craig, only to have Jenna telling him that she knows that all along. I could have screamed in frustration at this point. Why the freaking moly all that is holy doesn't that woman just tell Nick then?

The beginning of this book - Nick's homecoming - and the ending few chapters of this book - clearing Craig's name - are actually really good stuff. Also, Nick and Jenna's love story, in a shorter, less cluttered format, would have been great too. But 317 Beulah Street sees the author prolonging the story by padding the story with too many superfluous subplots, using transparently contrived means to prolong the main characters' not discussing the issues at hand, and slowing the pace until even snails will wail in impatience. This book could have been a keeper if it has been, say, a Harlequin Superromance, but as a longer format book, it's a pretty good read bloated with too much artificial contrivances and flavorings. One could easily find a lot to love about this book, I think, but one could also easily get annoyed trying to wade through the excess fat to get to the meaty good stuff.

Rating: 75

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