by Lisa Wingate, contemporary (2003)
Onyx, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-41102-1
One good thing about Lisa Wingate's new city-gal-in-smalltown contemporary romance is that she treats her smalltown characters as likeable human beings instead of bizarre, obnoxious, and meddlesome caricatures. When her elderly people forget to pay their bills, the reader will know that Ms Wingate is portraying these people as sympathetic characters that are still people worth respecting despite their failings, not that Ms Wingate is just trying to do that annoying "old people in smalltown behaving badly is so funny, haw haw haw" nonsense.
Unfortunately, in Texas Cooking, the author's debut "real romance novel", treats the hero as the exception to the rule. The hero Truitt "True" McKitrick is such an annoying one-dimensional redneck mule character that he pretty much ruins every scene he is in. It is not good for a romance novel when I start wishing that the hero will not show up every time I turn the page.
Leaving behind a lawsuit that left her career at a respectable business paper in tatters, Colleen Collins (no relations to that Harlequin author, I'm sure) reluctantly accepts a pity-gig as the correspondent in San Saline for Southern Women. She will write recipes, tales of southern chicken soup moments, and other stuff apparently all Southern women love to read in their free time. Of course, she soon learns all about the joys of Southern life and even finds love with the local Tractor Man, True, who has a lousy baggage that he doesn't want to get over no matter what. In the end, Collie learns that Southern Ya-ya is the only wa-wa to be.
This book works best when it's telling little anecdotes about the people and life in San Saline. Sometimes things can be too sweet, but on the whole, this book is like those Reader's Digest columns. Cynics like me often scoff, but it's not bad, actually. This story is told in first person, which means Collie is telling the story, and Collie is a pretty likeable heroine. Her culture shock experiences in San Saline are often real and amusing.
It is when later in the story when the book decides to stop being The Lonely Planet: San Saline and start being a romance novel that the book falls apart. The smalltown anecdotes are more enjoyable because it is obvious that Ms Wingate knows what she is writing about (no bandwagon author going ya-ya for dollars here) and her characters are real and quirky without crossing the line to being abrasive parodies. The romance, however, is strictly derivative and even below average at places, filled with artificial conflicts. True is a very problematic character because he embodies everything that is laughably pitiful about redneck stereotypes: he's anti-intellectual (sneering at city people with their fancy degrees - his newspaper don't need no fancy writing or researched journalism, no sah!), heavy-handed, borderline bigot, and that Tractor Man thing isn't helping at all.
And to push the romance, Ms Wingate uses two very contrived devices: one, whenever Collie is angry and she wants out, Ms Wingate will put Collie in some outlandish and very unlikely situation where Collie will have to bite back the (correct) things she'd dressed down True with and ask for his help, and two, the Wise and Sage Sole Man of Color that talks about lookin' in your heart and listenin' to the voices in your head. Neither works well because the whole contrived way the author structures her romance stands out like sore thumbs. The romance feels ersatz from every angle.
If Texas Cooking is supposed to be some mid-tier Harlequin Romance series novel heavily padded with extremely readable and often amusing anecdotes about life down in a Southern Smalltown, it will more than adequately satisfy. But with the romance and the hero ringing hollow, the book ends up more like a series of Reader's Digest columns interspersed with scenes from a really annoying and stilted romance novel. I have not read this author's NAL Accent books. If I am to judge from this book though, I hope Ms Wingate will get into the flow of writing a more convincing romance in her next book.
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