Whatever It Takes
If ever there’s a book that shouldn’t be judged by its cover, Whatever It Takes is it. It’s got the typical cover with the couple posed outdoors, hero fully clothed and heroine half naked. It’s a cover that says “hot sex,” but the book is quite prim. Since the hero has a leather vest and looks like a gunslinger, I was expecting to read a western. It’s actually very Americana, which came as a pleasant surprise to me; lately Americana books seem like an endangered species. Though I got over my cover shock and enjoyed the book somewhat, it ultimately fell short.
Maddy Potter has been caring for an orphaned girl named Katie and wants to formally adopt her. Because many in the town of Pepper Cloud, Missouri oppose the adoption and don’t approve of Maddy’s unconventional lifestyle, she decides that her best option is to pretend to be engaged to an upstanding man. She writes an old friend for help and it arrives in the form of Clayton Kincaid.
Initially, Maddy can’t help thinking Clayton is wrong for the part. He’s entirely too handsome, and nothing like Winston, her scholarly, reserved first husband. How will the townspeople ever believe she could fall for someone like that after wearing widow’s weeds for nearly seven years? But since Clayton is the only guy available, she decides to make do. She and Clayton perpetuate the fiction that he is a cousin of her deceased husband who has come to help go through all of the papers that were left behind when Winston died. As they do this, they will pretend to fall in love with each other so that everyone will believe them when they announce their engagement.
This sounds like a pretty flimsy and contrived premise for a romance, but what is refreshing is that Clay thinks so too. He comes to Maddy’s aid because his sister asked him to do so, but he’s not sure he likes the scheme, and he’s not sure Maddy is really a proper guardian for Katie. Maddy shares her home with some eccentric companions, including a former actress who adopts new roles at whim, a woman who talks to her dead husband, and a talented seamstress who supports herself by sewing skimpy outfits for prostitutes. Clay isn’t exactly sure that’s the best environment for a child, especially since other people in town occasionally snub Katie. Clay continues with the charade, but he hires a private investigator to find out if Katie has any family still living.
Obviously the reader knows that Clay and Maddy will fall in love for real, but it takes them awhile to get to that point; neither is looking for a relationship. Maddy has a big secret involving her first husband, and she’s made a vow not to marry again. Clay has a secret of his own that makes him feel unworthy, and initially he is afraid that Maddy might be in cahoots with his mother in a plot to set him up for real. But slowly and surely, Clay and Maddy come to enjoy each other’s company, and Clay can’t help falling a little bit in love with Katie as well. But before their courtship can be real, they each need to face the past and be honest with each other.
I’ve been striking out with a lot of American historicals lately, so my expectations for this book were a little low. I was pleasantly surprised at first. The story is slow and not always compelling, but I liked both the hero and heroine, and found them pretty interesting. I liked that Clay found Maddy’s plan a little suspect and went in with both eyes open, and I liked the way he approached their relationship cautiously, as a rational person would. Maddy isn’t bad herself, at least at first. I liked that she was unconventional, but not in a stupid way. She was willing to go to bat for people whom other members of respectable society avoided, and her somewhat eccentric ways made sense, given her upbringing.
The Americana feel of Pepper Cloud is like The Music Man meets Little House on the Prairie, with a dash of Oklahoma! thrown in for good measure. For the most part I found it pretty fun, and the townspeople were fairly realistic. There isn’t a real villain here, unless you count an overly ambitious match-making mother. The only character that annoyed me was Katie, who came off as a little too cloying at times. Just once I would like to have seen her get into trouble like a normal kid – something beyond getting her dress a little dirty.
The book was reading like a C/C+ (pleasant, but not remarkable) until close to the end, when we find out the reason for Maddy’s vow not to marry again. It struck me as contrived and just plain dumb, and the book never quite recovered after that. The eleventh-hour misunderstanding between Clay and Maddy didn’t help much either. Those elements and the somewhat plodding nature of the plot put the book in the C- range for me. Still, I’ve read worse, and parts of the book were promising. While I wouldn’t really recommend this particular book, I wouldn’t be adverse to trying another by Griggs in the future.
|Review Date:||January 24, 2003|