I admit to a streak of sentimentality. I want the characters in my books to reconcile with their estranged families, forgive their enemies, learn from their mistakes, and live happily ever after behind a white picket fence (or turreted battlement, as the case may be). So I don’t mind when a romance gets a little sentimental. I do mind when the sentimentality smacks me over the head, though.
Colleen Collins is an ambitious and successful Washington, D.C. reporter whose career was destroyed by a high-profile libel case. Through no fault of her own, she was fired in ignominy, and at about the same time her longtime boyfriend dumped her. A telephone call shakes her out of her depression over the ruins of her life: her old college roommate, now a magazine editor, hires her to do a series of articles on Texas cooking festivals. Dispiritedly, Collie sets off for the little town of San Saline in the Texas hill country.
There she meets a big-hearted, gossipy, matchmaking woman named Mrs. Hawthorne; an angelic black preacher named Malachai; and Truitt McKitrick, also known as True the Tractor Man, a handsome entrepreneur who also edits the local newspaper. Like many a big-city romance heroine, she falls in love with the little town, its inhabitants, and its handsome bachelor. But will Collie be able to leave her fast-track life behind for the charms of a country boy and a sweet Southern town? Or is that the stupidest question you’ve ever heard?
This is very much the story of Collie’s journey of self-discovery, and the romance takes a back seat to it. That’s okay, because Collie is fun to be around. She is the first-person narrator of this book and her humor and charm shine through. Her fish-out-of-water experiences are quite entertaining (although I personally don’t know how any literate American could think that prickly pears grow on trees), and her descriptions of various aspects of Southern culture are charming. I especially enjoyed the spectacle of a cattle auction, led by a couple of characters named Dub and Bub, who exchange some of the funniest one-liners in the book.
The hero, True, remains a cipher. In early scenes he exhibits sneering condescension towards Collie’s Yankee ignorance, which did not make a place for him in my heart (Another funny moment is when Collie notices True’s attitude: “I was being looked down the nose upon by the tractor-fixing editor of an eight-page newspaper in Nowhere, Texas. In my profession, you can’t get much lower than that.”). Later, True keeps secrets, which also did nothing to warm me up to him, and then he manages to seem indifferent as to whether Collie stays or goes. He redeems himself a bit in the end, but since he gets no point-of-view, he remains mysterious and hard to get to know. I didn’t mind this very much, because the love story is as much between Collie and Texas as it is between Collie and True.
Most of the secondary characters come alive as they are simply written better than True. The author has a good ear for dialogue and – with the exception of a couple moments when characters suddenly sound like tour guides – she does a good job of rendering the rhythms of Southern conversation.
What very nearly ruined this book for me is its inspirational message. Not that it’s preachy. This is an inspirational romance that succeeds in making its point about faith without preaching, or overt religiosity. However, it is aggressively heartwarming, to the point of schmaltziness. Collie has greeting-card epiphanies literally every couple pages:
“Jasper was right. No point looking too far down the road. While you’re staring into the future, the present is passing by moment by moment, like fence posts along the highway, and you never know what might be between them unless you look. Sometimes it’s best to focus on what is right in front of you. Like the tail feathers of a peacock glinting in the sunlight of a warm spring afternoon.”
Now, I agree that Jasper is right. And I don’t mind a bit of this sort of thing. But Collie dwells upon these wise, tender platitudes so often that the book practically turns into Chicken Soup for the Soul in your hands. All the sassy humor leaches away as Collie ponders, again and again, the nature of memory, the power of simplicity, the importance of community, and so on, and so on, and so on. By pounding her message home with such a lack of subtlety, the author gravely underestimates the intelligence of her audience and reduces her heroine’s discoveries to a bunch of trite platitudes.
Lisa Wingate writes well and in Texas Cooking she’s created a book with a great heroine, a nice setting, lots of humor, and a positive message. Its positive message is unsubtle to the point of bludgeoning, and I really hate that. But I like almost everything else in the book. If you’re looking for a fun book and don’t mind if things get corny, pick this one up.