Desert Isle Keeper
Beverly Sommers wrote the first adult romance novel I ever read, so when I came across a copy of this early title of hers, I couldn’t resist picking it up for nostalgia’s sake. It’s a good thing Losing It wasn’t the first romance I ever read, because I would have been doomed to be disappointed with most of what followed it. This is a funny, smart, creative and distinctive gem unlike anything else I’ve read in more than a dozen years of romance reading.
Losing It has a unique structure. As the book opens, an unnamed man and woman decide to write a romance novel based on their own story. They’ll call the character based on her Holly Benson; his alter ego will be Tom Cunningham. The majority of the book is made up of alternating chapters from Holly and Tom’s perspectives telling “their” love story. In between each chapter is an interlude where the person who didn’t write the chapter reads it and responds with how they saw those events differently. Meanwhile, in this “real time,” we see the couple still dealing with issues and conflicts that persist between them.
Holly Benson is a bail bondswoman in Queens, New York. Holly used to be very overweight. Her hard-earned weight loss made her a stronger, more confident person, but put her at odds with her husband at the time. An Elvis impersonator by trade, he was happier when she was heavier, feeling bad about herself, and more susceptible to his none-too-subtle put-downs. Finally when she was longer willing to put up with it, she divorced him.
As “Holly’s” story begins, her ex interrupts the Weight Watchers meeting she’s hosting and proceeds to hold the group hostage in an attempt to win her back. The standoff is more absurd than tense. The police have no trouble defusing the situation and place him under arrest. Feeling some responsibility for the situation, Holly agrees to find him an attorney. She calls Tom Cunningham, who she knows only from the neon sign he has outside his office advertising his practice. Tom takes the case, though he finds he likes Holly, the opposing witness, far more than his eccentric client.
Losing It reminded me a bit of Jennifer Crusie’s early series titles in terms of its style and tone, although it came out four years before Crusie burst onto the scene. While not as laugh-out-loud funny, it’s fast-paced and dialogue-driven with a cast of offbeat characters and manages to combine humor with a surprising amount of depth. Holly is appealingly independent and unusual, a woman who works in a trailer surrounded by all the cars she’s repossessed from people who skipped bail on her. Tom is first introduced while kicking back and watching a basketball game. He has that endearing laid-back regular Joe vibe.
The story has its share of serious and emotional moments, including one where the real Holly falls off her diet, partly due to Tom, and her frustration and shame are palpable. But Sommers uses a light touch that keeps it from getting too heavy (no pun intended). Anyone whose ever spent time counting calories should have no trouble relating to Holly’s struggles.
The book holds up remarkably well for one published nearly fifteen years ago. The only part that dates it is when Tom is said to look like Jeff Bridges, Holly like Sissy Spacek. Update the actor comparisons, and Losing It could just as easily be a current release, but better. It’s a good choice for anyone who ever got to the end of a book and wasn’t satisfied that the couple was going to live happily ever after. The dual format not only mines the humor to be found in the characters seeing their experiences differently, but gives the story an extra dimension that makes it something special.
The main storyline provides the typical romance, getting the characters to “I love you.” The secondary, “real” storyline shows that the disagreements that existed before weren’t cured by admitting their feelings for each other. The real Holly still resents that Tom eats whatever he wants in front of her and remains thin. The real Tom isn’t about to feel bad about what he eats and thinks Holly is too fixated on her weight. It’s a good conflict because no one is exactly wrong or right and it’s easy to see both sides. The same can be said about the characters, which is what makes them so nicely complex.
Books like this are the reason I used to defend series romances to those who felt they were an inferior format, and their absence is why I often no longer bother. It’s even more remarkable considering the time when it was printed, when romance novels tended to be more serious, long before every writer who ever made someone chuckle at a modestly clever comment decided she could write comedy. Sommers wrote a funny story with heart because she had one to tell. It has the infectious energy and joy of an author with the freedom to write whatever she wanted taking full advantage of it to create something singular. There’s not a cliché in sight. It says something that fifteen years after it was published, Losing It seems as fresh and original now as it must have then. Losing It sent me on a glom of Sommers’s backlist, with mixed results. This one is still remarkable.