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Wednesday, May 15, 2024

#TBRChallenge 2024: Runabout

The Book: Runabout by Pamela Morsi

The Particulars: Early 20th Century Historical Romance, 1994, Berkley Jove, Book 2 in series, Self-published reprint 2019

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I've got 3 books by Morsi in my keeper stash (Simple Jess, Courting Miss Hattie and Wild Oats) so needless to say I have others by her peppered throughout my TBR.

Spoilers Ahoy!

The Review:  This book was originally published in 1994 and I started to consistently read romance in 1999.  This is another fine example of a book I would have LOVED (all the heart-eye emojis) had I read it as a Baby Neophyte Romance Reader.  The problem is that I'm now in my Jaded Sea Hag Romance Reader era and folks, there's just too much problematic 1990s BS in this story that I could not overlook, even with Morsi slathering on her consistently charming world-building.

This is a sequel to an earlier book, Wild Oats (which I loved!) and takes place a decade later. Our hero, Luther Briggs, is the son of Cora Briggs' (the heroine of Wild Oats) ex-husband and some of the characters in the earlier book put in an appearance here.  I do think this story stands alone fairly well, but I also think I got a bit more out of it being familiar with the first book.

Dead Dog, Oklahoma is now Prattville and the latest hot topic of gossip is the preacher's daughter, Tulsa May Bruder who has been jilted by Dr. Odie Foote. An old maid of 24, this was seen as Tulsy's last hope for her dream of marriage and children given her carrot-colored hair and slight gap in her front teeth. She's not hideous or anything, but pretty? No. Tulsy's pride is hurt and being the subject of gossip breaks her heart, much like her currently broken Buick Model G Runabout that she got from her BFF, Luther Briggs.  In fact she's on her way to church, her first Sunday service since "the jilting" when she babies the Runabout into Luther's bicycle and automotive repair shop. Childhood friends since his odious grandmother turned him and his brother away after their parents' deaths, Luther wants to help Tulsy and hits upon an idea. What if they pretend to be courting? That will direct talk away from her being jilted by Moldy Odie and once the town gossips find something else to talk about, they can quietly "break up" with Tulsa May doing the "breaking."

This is a pretty straight forward friends-to-lovers set-up and follows the well-worn path that romance readers have come to know and love about this trope.  Two friends who have already "caught feelings" beyond friendship but just don't know it yet.  Add in Morsi's homespun charm, the dynamite country small town world building, and this should have been a surefire success for me.  So what went wrong?

The problem is this book features three romances, Luther and Tulsa May, Doc Odie and Emma Dix (local fallen woman), Arthel (Luther's brother) and Maybelle Penny (the prettiest girl in town and daughter of the town's head gossip), and each romance features a trash human being.

When the book opens Luther is in bed with Emma, who he has been "seeing" for a while. But then his BFF Tulsy shows up, he proposes his plan (while Emma is WAITING IN HIS BED mind you), we're off to the races and....he never sees or says another word to Emma ever again. He just ghosts her. Emma got into a spot of trouble when she was younger, running off with a married man (who she didn't know was married). She only came back to Prattville to care for her sickly father, whom adores her (and she him). Luther is the handsomest man in town, owns his own business, and she had hopes that their "good times" would lead to more.  Much hay is made that Luther never made her any promises, that he told her he wasn't ready to marry yada yada yada.  But you know what?

I DON'T CARE!  I know it takes two to tango but I still think Luther is trash in this scenario.

Eventually Emma enters into Doc Odie's orbit, since he's the town doctor and her father is sick.  Odie takes a shine to Emma (because she's so good to her father, I guess?), confronts Luther about his shabby treatment of her, and gets his shabby treatment of Tulsy thrown back in his face. I mean, Luther has a point. Two trash men, two romances, same book.

Finally, there's Maybelle who used to have a powerful crush on Arthel. He crushed her feelings for him when they were younger, and now both at 18, they have a very adversarial relationship.  Part of the back-story in this duology, and the reason that Luther and Arthel were never received by their grandmother after their parents' death is because they are part-Cherokee. Their father (the ex-husband from Wild Oats) fell in love with their Cherokee mother, creating quite the scandal. Luther strongly resembles his father but Arthel has prominent Cherokee features.  Since their falling out years before, pretty spoiled Maybelle now calls Arthel names like "Geronimo" and "Chochise."  Instead of finding this problematic or, I don't know, racist as hell, Arthel isn't bothered by it and instead seeks out ways to ruffle Maybelle's feathers as a schoolboy would with his first crush. 

My print copy clocks in at 295 pages, which means none of these romances gets a ton of room to breath and grow, but the Emma/Odie and Maybelle/Arthel romances are very lightly sketched. I can't see either marriage working because all I know about Emma and Odie is that he admires her for taking care of her sick father and that Maybelle's idea of an endearment is racism.  Then there's Luther, who I'm supposed to think is some great guy and he'll do right by Tulsy, but we never see him owning up to his past mistakes and behavior with Emma, nor do he and Tulsy have any kind of conversation about his past dalliances. (There's a scene later in the book where Tulsy hears innuendos about Luther and Emma but she's so sunny and na├»ve that it's not entirely clear if she puts two and two together, which means no confrontation scene other than Emma getting a "suitor" who nearly rapes her afterward to beat the tar out of Luther. Sorry not sorry, I couldn't help thinking he deserved the beating). 

When I picked this book for the With a Little Help from My Friends TBR prompt I had high hopes.  I tend to love Morsi's brand of homespun Americana, but the fact that Arthel nearly gets lynched towards the end (the only thing that saves the menfolk from tracking him down is Tulsy deflecting the drama away from Arthel to her and Luther) kills a lot of the charm. Historically accurate? Absolutely. What I want to necessarily read in a book where the tone is shooting for charming homespun Americana? Yeah, no. 

I'm torn on the final grade. The mob mentality that uncomfortably felt like a brewing lynching at the end meant I could no longer justify a B- grade even if I softened my opinion on the three trash characters. However, this also wasn't as bad as a D grade for me. There's still some Morsi charm here but I'm sorry, fair or not, I just expect more. For all those reasons...

Final Grade = C-


azteclady said...

Ye gods, GAH.

And yes, I can absolutely see the characterizations as historically accurate--from trash man Luther never talking to the woman in his bed ever again, to the privileged white girl hurling slurs to the young "half Indian" man, to the town frothing to lynch said man--but if the author doesn't resolve those issues, then what's the point?

(And boy, do I hear you on the "had I read it then, I would have loved it" thing--I look at my shelves with 1980s and 1990s books I loved, and realize often that, were I to read them today for the first time, I'd be frothing at the mouth at least half the time)

Jill said...

Yes, I think I tried to read Runabout not too long ago (b/c I'd enjoyed some other Pamela Morsi books) and I could not handle the Maybelle thing. I think I even skipped ahead, hoping she'd get her comeuppance or at least realize how nasty and hateful she was being to Arthel but alas.

It was a DNF for me, so you're a better woman that I am!

willaful said...

A dud for me as well. I'm not even sure I would've liked it if I read it sooner, though no way to know.

Wendy said...

AL: When you stack all that up against the "tone" and "feel" of the book it really, really doesn't work. I stated in my GoodReads review that while the hero in Wild Oats starts out as a thundering jackass at least he eventually sees the error of his ways.

Jill: The Maybelle thing was THE. WORST. If there was any justice she would have gotten some major comeuppance and Arthel would have fallen in love with someone who wasn't a racist.

Willaful: I think had I read this earlier in my romance reading "career" that the Emma stuff would have, sadly, rolled right off my back. The 1990s is a graveyard littered with Other Women and Non-Virgins done wrong by writers. But the Maybelle stuff - ugh. I'd like to think I would have hated that even as a Baby Romance Reader.

eurohackie said...

Yikes, I'm sorry that you ran into such a stinker, and from a favorite author, no less! Those especially sting :( I'm right there with you, though - that ratio of romances to trash characters to page length wouldn't work for me either, ugh.

I had to skip again this month (Mount TBR is still in moving boxes) but I am ever hopeful I'll be able to dig something out for next month.

Wendy said...

Eurohackie: Out of all the trash characters it's a sad state of affairs that the one that I thought was least-trashy is the guy who jilted the heroine. Oof!

Good luck with the unpacking! Last time I moved I easily culled out a couple hundred print books and I still felt like I was unpacking for days.

Jen Twimom said...

I've learned the older I get, the less I want/need harsh accuracy as I do solid romances and happy endings. I tend to lose interest because I get stressed out when things get too real.