The Real Thing
Melissa Foster kicks off her Sugar Lake series with The Real Thing, a middling but spirited adventure in which in which a spunky baker and a famous actor must confront their shared past in order to find happiness.
Willow Dalton – proprietor of Sweetie Pie’s Bakery, a bakeshop/catering business that she hopes to expand into the finest café and bookstore in all of Sweetwater, New York – is one busy woman. Which is why she’s not thinking of romance when she bumps into her good friend, the famous new A-list Hollywood heartthrob Zane Walker, at what she’d been led to believe was an important catering gig only to learn that Zane set it up because he needs her to help him out of a tricky situation.
Zane means a lot to her – they were once close enough for Willow to ask him to help with her sexual initiation before she went to college – but her conditions of engagement required that there be no emotional intimacy between them – and though she immediately regretted that particular stipupation, she’s been keeping things flirtatiously platonic ever since.
But Zane is desperate –the tabloids have splashed his love-em-and-leave-em affairs across papers nationwide, and he needs to clean up his image in order to be accepted as a viable leading man. What better way to do that than by getting engaged to his childhood friend? So what if he’s been battling a crush on Willow ever since they were teenagers? So what if Willow’s feisty nature means she won’t sit still for press photography or put up with the paparazzi? She owes him and she’s his best friend, so he figures that she’ll be willing to heed his pleas.
But they’re soon quite unable to resist the pull of each other and the memories that lie tantalizingly within reach. The engagement soon threatens to turn legitimate. But when old pictures of Willow surface and threaten Zane’s career, can either of them forgive each other for the unspoken words that kept them apat in the first place?
I liked a great deal of The Real Thing’s peppy, emotionally vibrant story. Willow is amusingly relatable; her attachment to her beloved classic car – Chloe – is understandable, and she has a spine. But the narrative doesn’t make a lot of sense when it comes to her attraction to Zane; if she wants him to leap over the boundaries she set years before and claim her hand, why does she put up those barriers in the first place?
Our hero is a much bigger problem. Zane is rather difficult to love, and the plot elements he brings to the book make little sense. It seems rather extreme to fake an engagement just to convince the public he can be a romantic leading man in spite of his playboy background (when did that ever stop George Clooney from being successful? DiCaprio?). Zane is also somewhat condescending, constantly calling Willow by fond but condescending nicknames like ‘Sweet cheeks’ and suggesting that Willow ‘owes’ him for helping her lose her virginity, which is frankly kind of creepy. He’s the kind of man who kisses a distraught bride on the mouth to prove to her that she totally really loves her groom. Willow fights fire with fire and she’s no pushover but it was hard to get around Zane’s dickishness. “I gave in to peer pressure” is no excuse when you’re a grown man.
I did, however, like Willow’s backbone and her refusal to be cowed by Zane’s attempt at controlling the narrative of their engagement and relationship. The way she makes him squirm is a real treat, and her family and friends’ intense defense of Willow is also great. I really liked her feisty sister, Piper.
The romance is just fine and contains a lot of decent chemistry, but the biggest problem I have with the novel as a whole is that all of that initial passion runs out of steam very quickly. After the confusion between Willow and Zane is settled fairly early in the book, the author struggles to cast around for plot, and has to drag in outside interference of the most ludicrous variety to extend the book for another hundred pages. The romantic chemistry is terrific, which is what prevents the novel from being a total loss, but the mobius strip of outside conflict is annoying.
The pace is quite brisk. Foster has a lot of talent, even if some of her similes are a bit eye-boggling (“Zane could have modeled for Boogie Nights with that viper in his drawers.” Is one choice line. Yes, it sure is.).
The Real Thing provides some sigh-worthy sweetness, even though the hero is hard to love and the plot’s a little thin. It might be worth picking up if you’re looking for some light reading when you’re feeling a little low, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it.