mainstreet Okay. I know small town romances can get a bad rap online sometimes. And it’s not totally without reason. After all, we’ve all read more than one (probably WAY more than one) book about the spunky gal who fled the evils of big city living, sought refuge in the wholesome world of Toadsuck, where she married the hunky sheriff. There were probably a bunch of sheriff’s deputies waiting for sequels in which they could marry their own true loves and then everyone could raise armies of wholesome children. If you know the sorts of books I’m describing, you may also agree that they tend to need treacle ratings rather than sensuality ratings.

Even so, I have to admit that there are some types of small-town settings I will seek out. I was at a family wedding in a tiny town recently, and being there helped me remember why I do like these settings on occasion. There’s just something about the sense of community and being in a place where almost everyone has a shared history together. The pastor at the wedding knew the couple’s family all the way back to their great-great grandparents, and all of us couldn’t help feeling tied together by that shared history. It was comforting somehow – and a peaceful escape.

Authors who capture that bond and that sense of community without falling into ridiculous cutesyness or city-bashing create a world that feels rather like that peaceful escape. Everyone knows that the people involved aren’t perfect, but you love them anyway. And in the best small town books, people also realize that there’s a larger world out there without feeling the need to bash it.

Take Miller’s Kill, New York for example. In Julia Spencer-Fleming‘s series, we get to meet characters who have grown up there as well as those, like Rev. Claire Fergusson, who came from elsewhere. The town is peopled by a wide mix of personalities, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them as I read the books. I love how the author shows readers her characters, warts and all, and lets readers into the life of her town. Despite the grim things that can happen there, the town seems to have a warm heart to it and does not feel cliched at all.

And then there’s the Wishful, California of Jill Shalvis’ most recent series. First of all, these books are NOT about marrying the sheriff! I read Instant Temptation for review, and then went back and read the other books this weekend. These have their cute moments, but again, I didn’t feel like I was reading one cliche after another. I also didn’t come away from her writing feeling like I had been fed any heavyhanded propaganda of the small towns=good, cities=bad variety. In a way, after reading Instant Temptation, I almost felt like I had been to a wacky family reunion. And I mean that in a good way.

If you read inspirationals, I’ve also had good luck with the “Love Finds You in…” series from Summerside Press. The line includes both historicals and contemporaries, and features actual small towns around the country. One thing I like about the books in this line that I have read has been the absence of cliches that tend to get associated with small-town romances. The characters don’t seem to have anything against city life, they’re not knee-deep in secret babies, and I haven’t read any sheriff heroes yet. My favorite of the ones I’ve read, Love Finds You in Romeo, Colorado, focuses on a professor who left Colorado for Arkansas but then returned home to her grandmother’s ranch following the death of her husband. It’s just a sweet, second-chance-at-love story between her and a town doctor, devoid of well-used cliches and actually refreshingly honest at its best moments. I especially appreciated the author’s take on the town itself. It felt homey, but not idealized. I could relate because that’s exactly how the small towns I know well feel to me. I feel at home there and most people are at least somewhat familiar to me, but I know they’re not all sunshine and rainbows. It doesn’t have to be sunshine and rainbows to feel like home.

So, when I’m looking for warmth and comfort, I find small-town romances are nice for reminding me what that sense of community and family is like and why I treasure it so much. That being said, I also tend to be very careful about which books I pick. After all, there is a fine line between heartwarming warmth and saccaharine treacle.

– Lynn Spencer