Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Small Town Girl by LaVyrle Spencer ****

At last, a Spencer book that didn't tear my heart to shreds while reading it!

Small Town Girl is about Tess McPhail, a famous country western star (think Reba McIntire), returning to her small town at the insistence of her 2 sisters - Mother McPhail is having hip surgery, and the sisters need Tess to help mom out. She has been gone 18 years, since she graduated from high school and left home to make it in the country music business. And boy oh boy did she ever make it - she's a shrewd business woman in addition to a major singing talent, so she's a multi-millionaire now. She has to interrupt an album release and several appearances to come home, and she's not too happy about it either.

She hasn't been home for more than a brief visit or three in years and years, and staying with her widowed mother is not easy. Mom is pretty set in her ways, and in spite of the financial help Tess has sent home over the years, nothing has changed much at mom's house. In fact, the same Boy Next Door still lives across the alley - geeky Kenny who had a crush on Tess in high school. Well, he did move out, married, had a daughter, and then his wife left him and the kid, so he and the kid moved back home with his mom, who has since passed on.

Tess's life in the small town wasn't bad, she wasn't seriously deprived - her father died when she was young but all in all you get the feeling she had a good childhood. But what she wanted from the minute she could talk was to be a big-time country singer, so as soon as she graduated, she boogied - no hard feelings, no wayward childhood - just an itching for bigger and better. And she got it.

Kenny's life is pretty much as you'd expect for a Small Town Boy – boring - he's a self-employed CPA, living in his mom's house with his 17-yr-old daughter, dating the same woman for 8 years. He and Faith have a nice routine - for the past 8 years on Thursday's it's bridge night; she irons his shirts; he mows her lawn. But it's a small town, and they won't live together without marriage, and neither one is moved to make the commitment. The excuse is that she's Catholic and it would be a sin to marry a divorced man. The real reason is a little deeper - there's not really anything more than convenience and comfort between the two. Basically, Faith is a very nice woman that everyone respects, but frankly, she doesn't like getting messed up, and well, sex is messy. She never spends the night at his place; he never spends the night at hers. Oh, yeah, she puts out "on occasion" but no fireworks or even a spark there.

Tess remembers Kenny as the geeky boy who tried to kiss her on the school bus; he remembers her too (of course, she's extremely famous, so how could he not?) but his feelings for her are a lot more complex. First, he's still mad and embarrassed about how she treated him in high school. Second, he did have a crush on her and he's been fascinated by her ever since. Third - well, he does need to keep in mind Thursday is bridge night with his nice girlfriend Faith. And fourth - he has this daughter, Casey…

As it turns out, Casey is a big fan of Tess's - and she's a great singer too. Casey hears Tess writing a new song ("Small Town Girl") and gives her a couple of lines she thinks up, and later another verse. Tess figures out pretty quickly that Casey has some major, undeveloped talent, and takes her under her wing. This forces more contact between Kenny and Tess - and lo and behold, the geeky boy next door has evolved into someone a little more interesting to Tess after all. They sense the attraction, and dance around it - not really fighting it but not really exploring it either. See - there's that Thursday night bridge with Faith thing, and well, Tess is a famous singer who lives 250 miles away and performs 120 concerts a year, and, it just doesn't seem like their attraction could lead anywhere either of them is prepared to go.

You know, I did try to feel bad for Faith. Everyone really does like her, a lot, and she is nice to everyone. But sheesh - the whole thing with her ironing for him and going over there every night to make them dinner, then going home alone after dinner - it was sorta creepy really, since they don't show any overt signs of affection in front of anyone, ever. Tess even thinks how much she seems to be taking the place of his mother. All that almost completely emasculated Kenny for me - I mean, he wasn't the shy beta hero with a past, like in Morning Glory. He seemed to have no desires until he starts to show signs of attraction to Tess, though he doesn't really act on them. Even his backstory with his ex-wife (which I kept trying to fit into the timeline - if Tess left town 18 years ago, and the daughter is 17, he must have knocked up his wife about the same time Tess left?? so much for carrying a torch) didn't explain his lack of sexual desire (like, was he was so put off by women he won't have another?). It's not like he pressed Faith for anything more in this story. Maybe we're supposed to conclude that he did, once, and gave up, resigned to his fate of having to raise his daughter and having a nice almost-platonic relationship with Faith. Maybe if I read it again, it will be clearer to me.

He goes ahead and confesses to Tess his attraction – in fact, he really did carry the torch for her, as we learn towards the end. In this way, it's almost a First Love story. Tess has a harder time coming to terms with her own feelings – after all, she has this incredibly successful career that really doesn't leave time for a family, and I think she feels a little bad about stealing him away from Faith. She makes it pretty clear that he has to give up Faith for them to continue. But, it is a romance, and in the end they reconcile all the that in a nice, satisfying way for the two of them. Really, Faith is the only one left sort of undone, but frankly I think she had it coming. Well, no, actually, she deserved better – she deserved her own single Catholic fellow that would marry her, and she should have given up Kenny a long time ago if she wasn't willing to take him as he was. Or maybe the relationship she had with Kenny was all she wanted, in which case, good riddance for Faith.

Too bad Spencer retired – maybe she could have written a sequel for Faith. After all, she spent a lot of time convincing us that Faith was truly a nice, nice person that everyone respected and loved, and then BAM she gets dumped, pretty much on her ass, with not much explanation. And dang it all if she didn't come to their wedding at the end and make nice. She needs a spine and probably doesn't deserve her own book anyway!

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