Playing For Keeps
by Karen Templeton, contemporary (2003)
Silhouette, $6.50, ISBN 0-373-21834-6

With lots of generous humor, Karen Templeton comes close to scoring a remarkable winner with her debut single-title romance for Silhouette. Playing For Keeps is a romantic comedy that doesn't skimp away from realistic characters (yes, this includes the heroine, hallelujah). The hero may be a former baseball star, but everything about this book is charming, down-to-earth escapism involving characters I can care about. In short, this book is pretty wonderful.

Joanna Swan is a familiar character - she's smarting from a broken marriage with her irresponsible ex Bobby, her mother Glynnie insists on barreling into her life when Joanna would like nothing more than her mother to stay out of it, and she is trying to get Bobby to come up with his share of the money so that her house doesn't collapse and her kids won't go hungry. One day, Glynnie and Joanna are on the rounds trying to sell Joanna's custom-made Santa figurines to art galleries when they walk into the newest toy store in town, Playing For Keeps, to buy some gift for a family member. One thing leads to another and the store owner Dale McConnaughy places an order for Joanna's toys and wiggles his way into Joanna's heart and life. I don't think she actually knows how the last happened to her.

At first, I have some fun time drawing parallels between this story and an episode of Once And Again (I really miss that show, although I'm glad it ended - after Lily and Rick's marriage, it's obvious that the show has no longer any more stories to tell). Joanna is obviously Lily, a self-proclaimed former free-spirited sort that is trying maybe a little too hard to control her life. Dale is of course Rick, an easy-going guy with commitment issues and often fails to act when he should because of those issues. Bobby Alvarez is the charming Jake, a flawed guy, although unlike Jake, he does a better job at reforming when Tori, his new wife, needs him the most. But nah, eventually I stop comparing this book to Once And Again because the similarities are actually very superficial and I am enjoying this story as much as I enjoy a well-written episode of Once And Again.

What I love best about this story is that the characters are as real as romance novel characters are allowed to be. Joanna's problems and her way of thinking are ones I can relate to. Her relationship with Glynnie is one I can recognize - sometimes they can't stand each other, sometimes they don't understand each other, but in the end, they won't change anything because they love each other after all, awww. Th children aren't annoying - they are, in fact, very adorable. Yes, they can be naughty, but they are children, not plot contrivances or creepy midgets that launch into eeriely bombastic and stilted speeches to drive the main characters into epiphany. Even Bobby, the ex, is given enough depths to have me softening inside towards him. Bobby's not a bad guy, he's just an irresponsible man that's trying his best to change once he realizes what kind of man he is.

Dale is probably the closest thing to escapism in this book: he's very much male in his way of thinking, but he's also unbelievably good with the children and he does things so wonderfully that he's like the self-aware metrosexual hunk that cooks, does the housework, says the right things, and doesn't care if you put some extra pounds around the waist and thighs. I want one. Where can I get one? He has his own issues, introduced a little too abruptly late in the story, but I still want one of him. Does he have a real-life brother?

The problems - oh come on, you know this part of the review is coming - that prevent this book from being a keeper are the sagging middle that sees our main characters indulging in repetitious arguments and psychobabbles and a very obvious exaggeration of Dale's baseball playing prowess on the author's part. Still, all's still good at the end of the day. I finish this book with a big smile on my face.

Playing For Keeps is an appropriate title for the book - with her going the extra mile in characterization, humor, and credible emotions and doing it very well here, Ms Templeton is determined to do just that and she's taking no prisoners, and how wonderful for me, I'm the lucky one here.

Rating: 89

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