The Romeo and Juliet story has been done to death. So it was quite refreshing to pick up Magnolia by Kristi Cook, a story that promised Romeo and Juliet in reverse. And despite a heroine and hero who are a little too close to perfect, this book delivered on that promise.
In the town of Magnolia Branch, Mississippi, the Cafferty and Marsden families are practically southern royalty. Ever since an act of Civil War heroism, the two clans have been as close as real kin. So when Jemma Cafferty and Ryder Marsden are born a mere six weeks apart, their sorority-sister, BFF mothers thrill over the prospect of a fairy tale wedding that would truly unite the families. Jemma and Ryder grow up side by side, always with high expectations that their brother-sister relationship will eventually morph into a predestined true love.
The problem is that seventeen year old Jemma doesn’t like Ryder very much, and it surely seems as if Ryder doesn’t think very highly of her either. Ever since the 8th grade when their one an only “date” went tragically wrong, feelings of resentment and irritation are more the norm than warm and fuzzy thoughts of kissing or spending their lives together.
Jemma’s facing other problems as well. In addition to rejecting Ryder as her future husband, she wants to buck family tradition and attend film school at NYU rather than follow in her mother’s footsteps at Ole Miss. Her sister, Nan, has just learned that she has a brain tumor. And if that isn’t enough, Hurricane Paloma is barreling towards the Mississippi coast, promising to leave destruction and mayhem in its path.
With their parents out of town, Jemma and Ryder find themselves riding out the horrible storms of the hurricane together. Huddled in a make-shift storm shelter under the stairway in Jemma’s house, they finally have a chance to get to know each other without the pressure of familial expectations. And to their horror, they learn that their parents might have actually been right all along.
I really enjoyed this book. The writing clipped along at a nice, steady pace. The storm scenes were intense, with a real sense of impending danger. The sexual tension between Ryder and Jemma grows steadily, and their eventual interactions paid off with some pretty tingly kisses.
Too, I loved the concept of the two of them wanting to keep their budding relationship from their parents a secret not because it would be frowned up on but rather because their parents would be so pleased. In one scene, Ryder is about to climb up a trellis into Jemma’s room.
I tip my head toward the window. “You wanna come in?”
“You think it’s safe?”
“Just let me go lock the door,” I say before hurrying back inside.
And don’t think I’m not amused by the irony. Because unlike normal people, we’re not sneaking around to avoid being caught and punished. Nope. On the contrary, our parents would celebrate if they caught us in my bedroom together. I’m talking music and streamers and champagne toasts.
As quietly as possible, I turn the key in the lock, listening for the click. Sorry, folks. No party tonight.
Two things kept Magnolia from being an A read for me. First, Ryder and Jemma are so much a Prince and Princess as to be unrealistic, or at least the kind of people I would have hated in high school. Ryder is drop-dead good looking with a body to die for, the class valedictorian, the best quarterback in the entire state of Mississippi, and on and on. Truly, the guy is without fault – even his one weakness is adorable. Jemma is also a bit too far down the perfection spectrum. She’s pretty, popular, a cheerleader, brilliant at everything she does, from target shooting to film making. Her best friends are beauty pageant winners and stars of the drama department. When both Jemma and Ryder decide to apply to highly selective, prestigious colleges, there is little doubt about what will happen. I suppose if this story is a southern fairytale, then these two kids are perfectly cast, but they did cause more than a few eye rolls.
My other issue was the use of a secondary character as an additional obstacle to thwart the Jemma/Ryder romance. I can’t say too much for spoiler reasons, but this shoe-horned scenario was far too underdeveloped to be given the serious treatment it got. Rather, I think the idea of Ryder and Jemma wanting very much to buck parental expectations was plenty enough to keep them apart, and I wish Cook would have stuck with that.
All in all, however, I really enjoyed Magnolia, and I would definitely recommend it as a southern anti-Romeo and Juliet with a much happier ending.