Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Sweetheart Bargain

I figure Romancelandia needs another small town contemporary series like the proverbial hole-in-the-head.  While I'll admit to gorging myself on my fair share of small towns in category romance, the single title trend of endless series set in cutesy-wootsy small towns where every meddlesome busy-body is all up in your business has largely eluded me.  Too many words, too many pages, too much filler about said small town shenanigans and not enough focus on why I'm reading romance in the first place.  Uh, that would be for the romance.

But books like The Sweetheart Bargain by Shirley Jump may just get me to change my mind.  Certainly it helps that this is the first in a series.  It also helps tremendously that, while the author infuses this story with plenty of elements to make small-town-contemporary fans happy, she also includes some darker issues.  Think of it as Angst, With A Candy-Coated Shell.

Olivia Linscott's life is going nowhere in Boston, what with her dead-end job and fresh off the heels of a divorce.  So when she finds out she's inherited a cute little bungalow in Rescue Bay, Florida?  She goes looking for a fresh start, and some answers.  Having always known she was adopted, Olivia is left the house by her birth mother.  However, it's a bit of a rude welcome when she gets there.  The house looks nothing like the picture the lawyer showed her, which is to say it's one step away from falling down around her.  Then there's her surly next-door-neighbor.  Sure the man puts the hunk in hunky, but he's also a bit of an ogre.

Luke Winslow was a Coast Guard pilot until a blown mission, a dead BFF, and an eye injury grounded him permanently.  He's not fit for human companionship, haunted by his friend's death and reeling from the fact that his life, as he knows it, is over.  He'll never fly again, and flying is all Luke knows.  Now there's this pretty slip of a woman moving in next door, asking him to help her find a stray dog that is injured, and mucking up his big plans for endless mopey solitude.  If that weren't enough?  His grandmother seems determined to fix them up.

This story has all the ingredients one would expect from a small town contemporary.  Rescue Bay is quaint, filled with gossiping locals, and conveniently on the beach.  There's Luke's grandmother, and her pack of retirement home friends, that provide comic relief and a couple other main secondary characters like the town veterinarian and a Coast Guard buddy of Luke's that round out the action.

Underneath all that sweetness and light however are some darker issues.  Olivia wants answers from a dead woman who left her a falling down house and no letter explaining why.  Luke's eye injury is devastating, both professional and personally.  Not only is his friend dead, but Luke's career is over.  He's like a babe in the woods, and pricklier than a wounded grizzly bear.  And while Jump does employ the Old Folks As Comic Relief trope, she doesn't fall into the trap of making them One-Dimensionally Wacky.  Greta's advice to her grandson, her love for him, shine through.  She's not just a meddling busy-body, she's made of sterner stuff than that.

The author walks the tightrope between serious and cotton-candy well, keeping the story humming along and never falling too far over the edge to one side.  Luke behaves like a jackass, Olivia stands her ground, but also needs to work through her own issues as well.  If I had any one quibble in this story it would be the almost total absence of Olivia's adoptive parents.  Yes, she talks to her Mom on the phone (a couple of times) over the course of the story - but I guess I expected Olivia's mission to bother her a bit more.  But then, the author needs to keep the story focused and moving along, and wasn't I just the one complaining about "filler" in the first paragraph of this review?  Oh yeah, I was.

It's light, it's fun, but it's got a nice core of angst to keep things from descending into saccharine territory.  The Sweetheart Bargain didn't change my life, but I inhaled it in two sittings; no small feat these days thanks to work slowly sucking away my will to live.  If you dig small town contemporaries, this is a good one.  And even if you don't?  Yeah, this is still a good one.

Final Grade = B

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