Eugenia Riley, author of time-travel romance, turns to comedy with her latest, Bushwacked Bride, part of LoveSpell’s Wink and a Kiss series. The novel, while clipping along at a brisk pace with a large cast of characters, devolves quickly into the slapstick tomfoolery suggested by the title and never recovers the note of disdainful amusement that colors the first chapter.
When we first meet Professor Jessica Garrett in present-day Colorado, she is suffering the indignity of a bumpy carriage ride courtesy of the Broken Buck Dude Ranch, a place she has nicknamed the Dude Ranch from Hell for its kitschy and stereotyped reenactments of the old west. Jessica is a Ph.D. whose dissertation on the old west makes her expert enough to look down her nose at such demonstrations hosted by the Broken Buck. But when a knock on the head transports her back in time to a world just as cliché and tiresome as the one created by the dude ranch, she seems quickly to lose all of her former perspective.
The five Recklaw brothers kidnap Jessica from the stage, and the ensuing scene of four ostensibly dangerous, grown men scuttling under wagons and behind buildings to escape their mother’s broomstick wielding wrath plays as something from Lil Abner. Lines such as “Jumpin Jehoshaphat! You’ve shanghaied the new schoolmarm!” were intended perhaps to add local color and humor but fell flat for me. Surely this is not really the old west. Surely an intelligent, Ph.D. bearing, western scholar such as Jessica Garrett is simply in her own version of knocked-on-the-head-Oz and will soon wake up to something approximating reality.
But the plot continues to unfold. Completely disregarding any attempt to puzzle out her time travel or return to her own time, Jessica launches a crusade to reform the Recklaw brothers by teaching them to read (some truly excruciating scenes) and convincing them to go to church. In the meantime she gets mixed up in the boys’ vendetta with the local mine owner, Mr. Miser, and succumbs to oldest brother Cole’s seduction via lines such as “Sin is always fun, sugar. . . How ’bout a victory kiss?” and “My God, do you have any idea how soft your bottom is?” In response Jessica finds herself squirming “like a virgin” and wanting to “scream with the sheer rapture of it.” What happened to the discerning woman of the first chapter?
Bushwacked Bride reads as the romance novel equivalent of a bad TV sitcom – with all the predictable dialogue, stereotyped characters and easy resolution you might find in a show cancelled after six weeks. Possibly, this is intentional. In places, the novel even reads as self-conscious satire (at one point Jessica compares Cole to the kind of hero found in the historical romance novels she read while in college). But if Bushwacked Bride is meant to be true satire, ultimately it does not push far enough to achieve its goal.
In her May 4th Write Byte, author Jennifer Archer sums up the challenges of writing romantic comedy – what one person finds howlingly funny can leave the next cold. Bushwacked Bride did not tickle my particular funny bone. At one point early in the novel, Jessica says to the Recklaw boys, “Oh spare me your melodramatics. I’m not impressed.” I felt a warm rush of sisterhood there, having spent the majority of the previous pages mulling almost precisely the same thought.