Dishing It Out by Molly O'Keefe
The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Harlequin Flipside #37, 2005, Book two in duet/series, Out of print, Available digitally
Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I glommed O'Keefe's entire backlist after discovering her through her SuperRomances, which means yes - I picked up the two Harlequin Duets and two Flipsides she wrote even though I was never a huge fan of either lines.
The Review: O'Keefe definitely has a "style" and for those of us who love her books we know it's 1) Characters half a step away from rock bottom and 2) Angst-O-Rama-Jama. And yet this is the same author who started her publishing career with Duets and Flipside. A couple of speed bumps in a long line of doomed "romantic comedy" lines for Harlequin. God bless Harlequin, I love them to death - but lighter rom/com lines have historically not gone well for them.
Marie Simmons is working her butt off trying to create some stability for herself. After a nomadic early adulthood, she has settled in San Francisco and opened up a small cafe/bakery. She's broke. She's burning the candle at both ends. But she's got style, a good "look," and she's been doing cooking segments for a local TV morning show. Now they want to take the show weekly, but on one condition. Giovanni "Van" MacAllister is to be her new cohost. Her nemesis. The guy who outbid her for the restaurant space she wanted across the street. The guy who called her cafe a "cute little coffee shop" during one of his recent interviews. And now the asshat thinks he can horn in on her gig and ride her coat-tails. No thank you Mr. Man.
What follows is, of course, these two becoming cohosts. Van isn't exactly Mr. Smooth and he "gets" why Marie isn't exactly his biggest fan. But perception is everything, and Van needs this gig. He's hoping the TV spot will help get his restaurant off the ground. Marie may think he's Mr. Big Shot, but whoa baby - he's anything but. So the two start working together only to realize that their sexual chemistry may just muck it all up. Neither one is anxious to mix business with pleasure.
While this was a super quick read, I could tell that it was early on in author's career. It's the sort of book that picked up steam as it went along. It opens a little slow, and we don't even get Van's point of view until around page 60 or so. Up until then it's all Marie, prickly as a wet cat, putting him through his paces. For a while I was dreading a set-up of these two constantly trying to "one up" each other, and braced myself for various mean-spirited shenanigans - but blessedly the author does not travel that route. Marie has stipulations, which Van accepts, and the rest of the book is spent with them figuring out how to coexist together - in business, and in pleasure.
This is a "romantic comedy" in the sense that it feels like a rom/com visually speaking. It's easy to see this translating to the big, or small, screen. But thankfully it's not "comedy," as in the Funny Ha Ha variety. Readers are spared slapstick, forced attempts at humor, and other brain-bleed inducing endeavors that very rarely translate well on the page. It's a rom/com in tone, light and breezy, carrying you along. It's a textbook example of what I call a Chocolate Chip Cookie Read. It's tasty and fun while you're consuming it, but three minutes later it's like you never ate anything at all and you're back scrounging in the cupboard even though you told yourself, "Only one cookie....."
Where things get intriguing is towards the end, when the O'Keefe we know "today" starts to creep in. Things are really, really light until the author needs to get to the "black moment" to spur her characters towards our happy ending. This is when Marie's past baggage creeps in (major trust issues), which will likely annoy some readers, but worked for me considering how badly she had been spurned in the past.
This was interesting. It's not a perfect read. I felt the character development was a little light in the pants mostly because the author never quite dives deeply enough below the surface of her characters. It also took a few chapters for the story to really pick up any sort of steam (as a general rule, category romances really need to hit the ground running). But it's a pleasant read, and reading it as an intellectual exercise on Author Development + History, it's really intriguing. Had I read this back when it was published, prior to O'Keefe making the jump to SuperRomance - I'm not sure I would have "seen" her taking that path. But in hindsight? It makes a lot of sense. Especially when looking at the character baggage she concocts for this story. Certainly she doesn't delve into it too deeply (hey, Flipside!), but you can see she very easily could have. And that's the stuff that SuperRomances are made of.
This was a perfect example of an "OK" read for me until the second half, when the angst really began to go from simmer to boil. I'm not sure I would recommend readers drop their lives and read this right now, but if you're already an O'Keefe fan? I think this is well worth a look.
Final Grade = B-