MIRA, $6.99, ISBN 0-7783-2056-1
Contemporary Romance, 2004
Susan Wiggs’s attempts at mainstream women’s fiction so far isn’t too successful with me – I keep confusing her books with those by Kristin Hannah. This latest effort by the author sees her sticking to familiar conventions – rich boy, the gardener’s daughter, the summer friendship that results in an affair neither kid’s family readily accepts, and the complications that result – but it’s how Ms Wiggs depict the relationship between Rosa Capoletti and Alexander Montgomery that makes this book sing.
A nice mix of romantic whimsy and somewhat earthy outlook of love and life, this book tells the story of Rosa, the owner of a pizza parlor. Or rather, Celesta’s-by-the-Sea used to be a pizza parlor until Rosa takes over and turns it into an upscale restaurant famous for the high number of marriage proposals taking place inside its doors. People may dash to Winslow, Rhode Island to eat and get a wedding ring, but Rosa isn’t the luckiest person in love. Sure, she has a career and people to care, but something is missing. Then, Alex, her old sweetheart of twelve years ago, walks into Celesta’s-by-the-Sea and back into her life.
Rosa and Alex’s prematurely aborted young love soap opera is quite predictable in that there is a Romeo and Juliet tinge to it as well as there are always secrets and explanations that are revealed nearly too late (twelve years is a very long time, come to think of it, snort), but Ms Wiggs succeeds nicely in showing me why Rosa and Alex would fall for each other back then and why they would rediscover the chemistry between them even now, twelve years later. A well-done love story shows the adorable little gestures and quirks between a couple as well the major lust issues in the relationship, and Ms Wiggs understands this where Summer by the Sea is concerned.
Likewise, this book succeeds very well with me where depiction of close-knit families are concerned, with Rosa’s staff, family, and friends forming a support network that is heartwarming and fun to follow. Also, because Rosa runs the restaurant, the recipes in this book are to be expected. What is an added delight though is the author’s vivid portrayal of what happens behind the kitchen doors of Celesta’s. It is easy to believe that somewhere, there is a pot of pasta sauce simmering in a idyllic romantic restaurant like Celesta’s-by-the-Sea.
Of course, I probably can’t afford to dine in there, which ruins the mood a little. The whole gratuitous “upscale, wealthy, posh” state of Rosa’s new life probably serves to show much far she has come in life, but I can’t help wondering why simple and romantic can’t be depicted in stories like this without an expensive price tag stuck on it somewhere. I can’t help wishing that the rich, old money people in this story are depicted in a little less stereotypical manner as well.
Very little of Summer by the Sea will come as a surprise to readers familiar with poor dude, rich lady reunion stories. There are times when this book dips into melodramatic sentimentality that reminds me of the more mawkish stories of Debbie Macomber. But the author’s vivid and heartwarming treatment of the relationships in her story – between a man and a woman, between good friends, and between loving family members – gives this one a richness that persuades me to overlook any problems I have with the story.