What a Woman Wants
What a Woman Wants is one of those series romances driven more by convention than by any genuine conflict. The characters are flat and fairly uninteresting, and the romance itself isn’t as involving as other aspects of the plot are. Despite its failings, however, it had some nice, believable moments in it that, I must confess, left me feeling all warm and fuzzy.
John Sparks, the sheriff of tiny Old Orchard, Ohio, has always had a crush on Darby Parker, but when his best friend, Erick Conrad, fell for her, he marked her mentally as “off limits.” Erick and Darby enjoyed a happy marriage and produced charming six-year-old twin daughters. Erick has been dead for most of a year, but John just can’t rid himself of his gnawing desire for Darby. Naturally, John is torn up with guilt about this, simply because romance heroes are always torn up with guilt when they lust after their dead best friend’s wives. Never mind that Erick probably really doesn’t mind too much, considering that he is, after all, dead.
Complicating the situation is the fact that John did actually give in to what he perceives as his illicit desire once, three months ago, sharing a brief interlude with Darby in her barn. Naturally, he’s racked with guilt about this, too. So in the first chapter we are presented with a hero who has guilt virtually leaking out of his ears. And this is before Darby announces she’s pregnant with his child.
The fact that the book is set in a small town is apparently intended to add much-needed conflict to the plot. Old Orchard is one of those small towns so prevalent in romance novels, a town where a man can’t buy flowers for a woman without everyone in town whispering that he’s about to propose. Darby can’t go to her regular OBGYN to confirm her pregnancy because everyone will notice and realize she’s pregnant. (Apparently the good townsfolk have never heard of an annual pap smear.) When John finds that Darby is pregnant, he is immediately concerned that People Will Talk. And with good reason. When Darby’s brother-in-law, Dusty, discovers that John has “knocked her up,” he immediately drives to the sheriff’s office and blackens John’s eye. In short, the people of Old Orchard have never heard of the sexual revolution.
Darby doesn’t seem to be much of a modern woman, either. She’s indignant with her brother-in-law for hitting John and rants angrily about how men treat women like “the weaker sex.” Yet later, in a scene that really raised my feminist hackles, she thinks blissfully how good it is to have a man around the house in order to do the chores that have gone undone for months, like fixing a sticking door and cracked window. So we’re asked to believe Darby can run a big farm on her own, but that it takes big manly biceps to successfully use a screwdriver. Evidently Old Orchard, like an American Brigadoon, has somehow missed out on a few decades of progress.
Our hero fits very well into these surroundings. Just like the townspeople and Darby, he seems to be mired in an earlier century. Upon receiving the news that Darby is pregnant, he immediately realizes that he must marry her. True, he isn’t in love with her, but marrying her is the right thing to do. So he proposes. He’s a bit taken aback when Darby actually has the temerity to refuse. The rest of the book revolves around John’s repeated attempts to get Darby to marry him as the two fall into love. It’s obviously not a complex plot, but it does have its moments.
One charming aspect of the book is that both John and Darby genuinely loved Erick. To give the author credit, this is one area where the book doesn’t lapse into an extremely common stereotype. We don’t discover partway through the book that Erick was a terrible man, or an awful lover. Erick was a decent guy who loved his family, and both John and Darby honor him for it. The ring John proposes to Darby with was given to him by Erick in high school and is inscribed Best Friends Forever. This might seem a trifle morbid, but it actually comes across in the novel as extremely moving because it explains John’s character so well. John doesn’t resent the love that Darby and Erick shared, and he isn’t trying to replace Erick in her heart. He grows to love Darby, but he never wants either of them to forget Erick.
Twin daughters Erin and Lindy aren’t just sweet little darlings tossed into the book to add a dose of Shirley Temple cuteness. They possess a wicked and brilliant sense of humor, and they do their level best to get rid of “Uncle Sparky,” especially when he moves into their house in order to share in the pregnancy experience. When they set a goat loose in his room to awaken him, the results are amusing, to say the least. The twins have a real and genuine relationship with John, but they are averse to the idea of John marrying their mommy, partly because they believe with all their little hearts that their daddy is going to come back someday. This seems a bit contrived and corny at first, but when we realize precisely why they so firmly believe this, it’s one of the most heartbreaking moments of the book. That one moment alone easily raised my rating half a grade.
Unfortunately, the main characters aren’t as well depicted as the twins. John is an unexceptional guy from a large family who has minor issues with his father. He leads a dull bachelor existence in a small trailer. Darby lives on a 150-acre farm with her kids and cares for chickens and goats, and the townspeople call her “the Widow Conrad.” And that’s basically all we learn about these two. John mostly appears to be drawn to Darby because of her curves and her “thousand-watt smile,” and Darby’s reactions to John are similar. There’s a quiet affection between them, the result of years of friendship, but we don’t see their love blossoming, and as a result, their romance felt oddly superficial. Even toward the end, in the apparently mandatory woman-in-danger scene (which regrettably has very little to do with the rest of the plot), I didn’t feel as great a connection between the main characters as I would have liked.
What a Woman Wants is a pleasant enough read. But John and Darby, while nice enough people, are lacking the kind of depth that could have made me really care about them. There doesn’t seem to be much besides sexual desire tying them together. Overall, the uninspired plot and lukewarm characters made for a pretty average book with a few nice moments.