Warner, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-61189-1
Contemporary Romance, 2002
Oh, look: guess who’s the latest to “go contemporary” – one of the grand dames of the romance genre herself, Shirlee Busbee. I’m pleasantly surprised, to be honest, that the heroine in this story is pretty smart and despite being overpopulated to the point that sequel-bait characters are dangling out of the pages, Return to Oak Valley reads like a pleasant, entertaining 1980’s soap opera of ranches, horses, and poor little rich girls coming home to find her roots and all. It’s when the romance kicks in that everything goes down the dumper.
Seventeen years ago, Shelly Granger and Sloan Ballinger, teenagers in love, had a very mad affair until she learned of his Great Betrayal with Another Woman and fled to the city, where she then rarely keeps contact with her hometown anymore. I think the phrase “fragile femme” doesn’t adequately cover such ridiculous behavior, try “I need therapy bad”. She comes back to Oak Valley when her brother Josh killed himself and left her family’s once proud horse/ranch dynasty thing in shambles. As she pokes her nose into his matters, she learns a few not so nice things too about Josh, such as his illegitimate kid Nick, his potential side business as a pot farm landlord, and his huge gambling debts.
Then there’s Sloan, of the Ballingers who have been feuding with the Granger. Not that this feud adds much to the story except as more reasons for Sloan to act like a brat, but hey, what’s a soap opera without a million subplots that never get resolved, right?
Shelly is pretty sharp, and despite being left an estate in shambles, she isn’t afraid to try and rebuild everything, and she has the brainpower to do it. This personality of hers doesn’t really gel with the gullible Shelly that set the chain of events leading to her leaving Oak Valley, unfortunately. But unlike the usual “Kill! Serial killer kills! Heroine walks dark lanes! Kill, kill, kill!” romantic suspense written by android-like unimaginative romance authors out there, this story sees Shelly using her brainpower to assemble clues and discuss potential suspects with Jeb the Sheriff.
There are some gaping logic when it comes to plot though. For example, Josh thoughtfully left neatly and perfectly kept account books detailing all his suspicious business transactions. The better for people to find out his shady dealings, I guess. Then there’s the stupefying subplot involving a long, long, LONG attempt to prove Nick’s paternity (he is Josh’s illegitimate kid sired by the man with his housekeeper, the said housekeeper thoughtfully refusing to confirm the paternity because she has given her word to the man that used her – Mommy of the Year!). Apparently Josh wants to be cremated so there will be no DNA samples from him. Er, Ms Busbee? It doesn’t work that way. If I’m Shelly, I’ll suggest a quick combing of Josh’s personal and intimate items first before messing with the body. A hair caught on his comb, perhaps? Or maybe an appointment with CSI, how’s that, Ms Busbee?
But the weakest – and most stupid – thing is the hero Sloan. Firstly, any man who says that his teenage sex gropings are still the best sex he’s ever had can’t be too promising in bed. Two, if a man wants to woo back his woman, he’d better buy some flowers first. But no, alpha macho mule Sloan starts the courtship by mocking, insulting, and forcefully kissing our heroine. He’s so stupid. Every encounter of theirs ends up in a loud, annoying bickering even five-year old kids will balk at, and I wonder why the men in the romance genre can’t act like romantic people for once. Out of the blue, she realizes that he loves her and wow, she decides to live in Oak Valley and bear his kids forever and ever, amen. (She’s turning thirty-five, so Sloan, please, impregnate her now.)
But take away the really ridiculously over-the-top caricature of a Marlboro Man hero and some bewildering (or maybe archaic) contemporary plot elements, and what’s left aren’t too bad. One could argue that this story is as contemporary as Jaclyn Smith’s hairdo, but come on, it’s not that bad, really. The convoluted backstory and all those silly family secrets all add up to an enjoyable retro-visit to the best of 1980s soap opera: bad hair, too much make-up, and hairy hunks in skimpy Speedos and more. Ah, those good old days.