The relationship between the hero and heroine in Texas Star lacks chemistry and fails the believability test. What’s worse, the skanky villain sex between two secondary characters provides more excitement than anything to be read about Caldwell Star and Prudence Reynolds in Barbieri’s latest.
Outcast ranch worker Caldwell Star meets young widow Prudence Reynolds in small town Lowell, Texas, in 1869. After a long absence Cal returns to his father Buck’s ranch; it’s run down and derelict, and he finds Buck’s new wife, Celeste Star, running the show. Prudence and her five year old son Jeremy, are newcomers to the area and inherited another neglected old ranch in dire need of fixing up. She’s an Easterner and knows next to nothing about ranching.
The book’s prologue reveals that Buck ran out on a beautiful New Orleans’ socialite years ago after being paid off by her aging husband. Jeannette Borneau committed suicide in her despair at his abandonment and her husband subsequently suffers a heart attack, leaving behind an eight year old daughter and her Nanny Madalane, who vow vengeance on the man who ruined their lives. This young girl’s name? None other than Celeste Borneau, who eventually schemes her way into marriage to Buck years later in an attempt to inherit his wealth.
As chapter one begins, Celeste has manipulated Buck into firing his ranch hands, has schemed with her lover Derek to rustle cattle off the ranch to her profit and has being skimming money away in a New Orleans bank. Buck, in a weakened state of health due to Madalane’s poison “tonics,” is deeply enamoured of his wife, who pulls his strings as cleverly as a puppet master. When Cal returns, there is a lot of water under the bridge between he and his father. During his childhood, Buck was a notorious womanizer, and Cal was often confronted by his fancy women. After Buck’s wife died he descended into full-time drinking and carousing, leaving Cal to mind his little sister Bonnie. After Bonnie dies tragically, Buck blames Cal, and though only 12 at the time, he runs away. Cal hasn’t seen his father since, and the old man remains as bitter and hostile to his son as ever. Cal is shocked at the state of their ranch and would like to help, but his father’s stubborness prevents him from doing so.
Meanwhile, over on the Reynolds ranch, incompetent Jack Grate leached away Prudence’s profits and is fired for his lack of effort. One evening their milk cow starts bawling and Prudence is unable to find the correct technique to milk her. Cal, passing by, hears them and though Prudence attempts to resist his aid, he milks the cow, heading back to the town for lodging.
However, Cal’s long time friend, the town doctor, advises Prudence to hire Cal to help her fix up the ranch and in no time the two are more than just friends. Prudence stubbornly tries to impose her will on him at every turn, despite the fact that she knows less than nothing about ranching and didn’t even know if she had cattle on the ranch or not. Cal, who is drawn to Prudence despite her nature, which is prickly as a cactus, occasionally catches glimpses of her vulnerability and determines to help her. Meanwhile Celeste schemes against a reunion between father and son that could threaten her spot in the will and Jack Grate plots revenge against Prudence for firing him and against Cal for punching his lights out in the Last Chance Saloon after he assaults Prudence on the street.
While I very much enjoyed what seems an accurate portrayal of life on a cattle ranch at that time, and the author’s attention to the small details like customs and work-related snippets, I found it impossible to like the miserable, shrew-like Prudence, or to understand what on earth attracted poor Cal to such a banshee. Barbieri tries to show Prudence as having a stubborn streak that masks an inner vulnerability, but what actually results is a caustic, stuck-up, starchy widow who rejects Cal at almost every turn and does her utmost to undermine his efforts to get her ranch back on its ailing feet even though she is unable to pay him.
Perhaps if Cal got a thrill out of winding her up or knocking her down a peg or two, you’d see the chemistry but as the book went on I felt increasingly sympathetic towards him but even more irritated at the sadomasochistic streak he must surely harbor to keep coming back for more. Her all-out nastiness made his overprotectiveness towards her totally unbelievable. And a lack of backstory about her doesn’t provide the much-needed insight as to why she is the way she is. Jeremy, her son, is probably supposed to be charmingly precocious, but he’s the least realistic five year old I’ve ever heard of and his ‘you should be real proud of Cal, Mr Star’ speech to Cal’s hostile father Buck made me cringe.
The character of Celeste was so shallowly portrayed that she came off as two-dimensional as a cartoon baddie, the archetypal caricature of a vicious, borderline-psychotic, murderous, money and sex mad woman. When I read that she began to lust after Cal’s ‘manly bulge,’ I almost groaned aloud at the predictability of it all. Though her illicit encounters with cohort Derek were animalistic and downright foul, there was still more heat between them than between Prudence and Cal, who, judging by the length of their encounters, is a one-minute wonder. I wasn’t surprised to read that after their almost tawdry first sexual encounter, Prudence goes back to rejecting him.
While the story claws back some points in that the plot itself isn’t too bad and the description is quite good, the ending of the novel left many crucial plot points hanging and failed to resolve Celeste’s home-wrecking, husband-murdering storyline. Barbieri is probably hoping to wheel her out in a sequel which would see Cal’s other brother Taylor, also rejected by Buck (though for no good reason), coming back for a touching family reunion but somehow, I can’t find myself caring enough to bother pursuing it. What put the final nail in the coffin was Prudence’s sea-change in her attitude to Cal when on page 335 she says ‘It was a mystery to her how or when the initial animosity between them had made such a sudden reversal’ – trust me, it was a mystery to the reader too. They had no magic.