Desert Isle Keeper
Don't Forget to Smile
Tory Duncan, a former Miss America contestant, now runs a bar in the small Oregon town of Sullivan City. Joe Brigham is a logger turned rising star in the union. When Joe’s kid sister Lisa enters the Miss Sullivan City pageant, they turn to Tory for help. But Tory’s pageant past isn’t exactly a success story, and not something she’s thrilled to revisit. Watching this beta hero make a major life change and a talented heroine find herself after years of pleasing others is very satisfying. With richly detailed settings and a complex supporting cast, Don’t Forget To Smile is a wonderful ordinary-life story I’ve reread many times and highly recommend.
Personable, competent Joe is a good man who is only just discovering (or only just admitting to himself) that he is capable of greater things than his town has to offer. It was more fun to watch him conquer new challenges than to read about yet another billionaire CEO for whom every problem can be solved with a wave of the hand or a pen in the checkbook. It also gave Joe and Tory’s relationship a nice “team” feel. Tory’s experience and worldliness make him comfortable confiding in her and sharing with ambitions, whereas doing either with his family and friends could seem like a criticism of their lives and choices. Tory is practical and capable, if self-contained. Unlike some heroines who fortuitously inherit small-town inns or bakeries and just happen to make a go of it, Tory thoroughly researched bartending and her market. Her advice to Joe and to Lisa about pageants is always spot-on. I appreciate that the author put in the effort to learn details about logging towns, pageants, and small businesses so that she could develop the setting convincingly.
When I say that this is a romance that feels ordinary, I don’t mean that it is ordinary among novels. Rather, it succeeds at the extremely difficult task of building a realistic small town full of complicated ordinary people and complicated ordinary relationships. There is no huge conflict in this book; just people gradually working their way towards improved and happier lives. Tory must work through her feelings about her stage mother and her pressure to produce a perfect exterior (rather than to pursue happiness and satisfaction.) Unlike Tory, who has gone from the national stage to a small bar, Joe is starting to want more than just Sullivan City. His new union position offers the chance to move up to regional and even ultimately national work – which, of course, would take him away from his son and from Tory, just as their relationship starts to blossom.
I appreciate the fact that the author presents a nuanced view of small towns. For Tory, it’s a rebound romance, a place to reject the artifice and forced sophistication of her former lives as a beauty contestant and a party planner. It’s honest and friendly, if a bit bland and sometimes understimulating. Joe, as “one of the Brighams,” and the third Brigham named Joe, has the security of knowing he always has family at his back – and the frustration of lacking an individual identity. Joe’s ambitions puzzle his family. If he is holding down a good wage logging, why stick your neck out as the union rep? Oddly, the only one who understands him is teenage Lisa, who wants beauty pageant success so she can afford to be the first Brigham to attend college. This push-pull of comfort and stagnation, support and smothering, and simplicity and narrowness feels more true to life than the twee cuteness of most small-town romances.
As with the small towns, the supporting characters are complicated. Tory’s mother did not do well by her, but she’s not evil, and you find yourself rooting for them to reconcile. Joe’s ex-wife Marianne, who couldn’t handle what she felt was the precariousness of a union job, is not a villainess. Although you hurt for Joe when Marianne’s new husband Dennis does fatherly things with Joe’s son Max, you also know that it’s best for Max to have all the adults in his life love him.
If you want to see an interesting role-reversal of a sophisticated heroine and a small-town hero, and if you like detailed settings that don’t oversimplify or romanticize, then Don’t Forget to Smile is the book for you.