MIRA, $12.95, ISBN 0-7783-2091-X
Contemporary Fiction, 2004
Some authors create sentimental melodramas in a way that readers can see right away that they are being manipulated and reject the story. Other authors take a disease of the week and turn it into a rescue fantasy starring fragile blondes with big breasts, narrow waists, and perfect breeding hips. Curtiss Ann Matlock is one of those authors who have sentimental melodrama as part and parcel of their trade but she always make sure that there is genuine warmth and even bittersweet realism (not too much, but enough) to make the story feel as real as possible instead of just 100% unadulterated sugar.
Claire Wilder’s story starts off like that of any typical heroine in a story where she goes to a small town to find love and a home. Abandoned by her husband of twenty years, Claire is living in a neither here nor there sort of funk until she reads on a bathroom door of a truck stop a scrawled message urging her to look for “life”. And here I am thinking people are always drunk and looking for meaningless one-night stands in truck stops. The things I learn everyday, really. Claire takes this as an inspiration for her to quit her job as well as the city of Shreveport and travel down to Valentine, Oklahoma, the setting for the author’s last few books, to look for her father that she hasn’t seen since he walked out on her and her mother when Claire was much, much younger.
But what is originally intended to be a trip for her to temporarily get away from her old life and rediscover her roots turns out to be so much more when she checks into the Goodnight Motel at Valentine, and becomes embroiled in the lives of several people in Valentine. These characters should be familiar to readers used to small town Americana: the pregnant teen, the dotty old man, the kind matriarch figure, the well-meaning busybodies, and of course, a man for Claire to love along with his little boy for her to mother. Perhaps I won’t be spoiling things too much if I mention that the ex comes crawling back for a second chance. Seriously, how many people out there do not see that one coming?
But what makes this book stand out from the usual formulaic Americana is that Ms Matlock tries to do a little bit more with her characters. The pregnant teen, Sherrilyn, for example, can hold her own as a character instead of merely a one-note young lady in distress because Sherrilyn has a clear personality that stands out in the story. I’m not too keen on the potential love interest as it is the most formulaic element in the story, but Claire as a character is a well-drawn heroine whose coming to terms with taking control of her own life and doing something with it is inspiring and charming to follow. Most hard-hitting though is the subplot where the kindly matriarch figure, Vella, embarks on an online friendship with a man named Harold. He turns out to be so much more important to her than she first expected, when this correspondence becomes Vella’s main source of strength and companionship even as Vella takes care of her invalid husband. Vella’s story is the most compelling of all – it offers the richest emotional complexity, hence it is almost disappointing that Vella has to share this book with more conventional characters.
Sweet Dreams at the Goodnight Motel ends on a feel-good high note, which is to be expected, but Ms Matlock draws her characters with fine-tuned sensitivity that any predictable nature of this story is offset by the rich nuances of emotions that she imbues in her characters. I probably won’t remember the familiar storylines of the book in a few months’ time but I will remember that I have a good time visiting Valentine with this author.