Thursday, January 24, 2013
Sweet Home Chicago
I don't think readers are getting worn out on small town contemporary romances so much as they're getting sick of bland, tasteless, wallpaper. World-building gets harped on a lot when talking about paranormal or historical romances, and yet not very many people talk about it with straight contemporaries. This is what Jennifer Lohmann's debut romance, Reservations For Two, has in spades. This a big city-set (Chicago) romance with a small town feel and it has an excellent sense of place.
Chef Tilly Milek has come home to Chicago after a few years away to open her own restaurant. Having grown up working in her family's Polish restaurant, Tilly's idea is to make Babka a bit more of an upscale eatery. Her mother's restaurant is where you go to get Polish home cooking during the week, Babka is where you take your date on Saturday night. It's been a lot of hard work, and there have been a few bumps along the way, including a scathing review by a mysterious food critic on one of Chicagoland's most widely read blogs.
The food critic in question is Dan Meier who freelances for the blog run by some of his college buddies. His editor ran the post because he knew it would generate buzz, while there are others on staff who feel Dan wasn't fair. For one thing, he typically eats at a restaurant on three separate occasions before writing his reviews. He only dined at Babka once, and while his over-salted food is a legitimate critique, other events of that evening were beyond Tilly's control. Dan's critical colleague essentially orders him to attend a demonstration Tilly is putting on at the Taste Of Chicago festival. We all know where this is going right? They "meet cute" at a hot dog stand and before Dan finds how who the mystery woman is, he's smitten.
The story pretty much follows the course that Dan behaved like a jackass, Tilly doesn't know who he really is, and he has to figure out how to make things right with her without sending his professional integrity down the toilet. There's also the matter of some hijinks occurring at Tilly's restaurant - is someone trying to sabotage her personal dream?
There are other elements at play as well. Dan has a strained relationship with his father, who expects him to wake up one morning and start running the family business. It's because of this strained relationship that he may have jumped the gun with Tilly's review just a wee bit. Tilly lost a brother, her father and an uncle in a tragic car accident, but is still close with her mother and two surviving siblings (Sequel Bait Ahoy!). She hasn't dated since moving back to Chicago, what with her hectic work schedule and getting a new business off the ground. I did wonder at times why she didn't knee Dan in his kielbasa 'n pierogi - but as the reader we see Tilly struggle with Dan The Unfair Reviewer vs. Dan The Really Nice Guy She Met At A Hot Dog Stand.
The author infuses this story with a deep love of Chicago, everything from the food, festivals, music and most importantly - the baseball (the Cubs and White Sox are their own religion). She also takes a big city locale and gives it a small town feel by writing about an ethnic community (Polish) without falling into any unpleasant, insulting stereotypes. It gives this book a lovely neighborhood feel, but gives Tilly and Dan a whole city of sights, sounds, and tastes to play around in. The way the author writes about the setting, food, and the importance of both in her characters' lives is very well done.
There were some debut author-isms, mostly in the form of pacing issues for me. I found the first couple of chapters a little uneven, especially when the guys that Dan works with at the blog were introduced. But once our couple meets, and especially after Dan's Big Secret gets spilled, the story really starts cooking and the pages flew by.
This was a very strong debut with some nice originality to it. I'm looking forward to the next two books in the series which will feature Tilly's siblings.
Final Grade = B
Note: This is a February release from Harlequin SuperRomance. It is currently on sale at their web site in both print and digital formats. It will appear at other retail outlets in February.