Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Gamble by LaVyrle Spencer

I am having another "how to rate" issue with this book. I liked it. I didn't love it, but I did like it. I'm not sure I would read it again (and dang if it isn't water damaged, so I can't trade it back to PBS). But it was a good story.

But a Good Story by Spencer is better than a mediocre story by, say, Lisa Kleypas, in my opinion. So I rated it 3 but it's better than some I rated 3. But it's not as good as some Spencers I rated 4.

Oh what to do?

Here's the plot: a Southern gentleman, Scott, is our hero. He fought in the Civil War for the South. He was raised on a Mississippi plantation that had 1200 slaves. His 2 brothers and his parent died in the war and his young wife and daughter were killed after the war. He now owns this huge plantation, but is all alone. He strikes out on his own and develops a sort of family, with 3 ex-prostitutes, a couple of musicians and a bartender. He heads to Podunk, Kansas (OK, that isn't the name of the town...) to open a saloon, complete with gambling and dancing girls. He purchases a property that houses 2 businesses and 2 apartments.

The current resident of 1 apartment and 1 business is our heroine, uptight spinster milliner Agatha. Agatha is alone in the world, running her dead mother's hat business. Her father, alcoholic abuser that he was, died penniless and miserable years ago, after he pushed Agatha down a flight of steps that has left her limping since age 9. She gets swept into temperance fever and vows to shut down the Gilded Cage, Scott's new saloon, soon after he opens it.

So they start out as enemies. She campaigns along with other women in her area by singing and praying and making nuisances of themselves outside the bars. But that doesn't dampen the spirits of the cowboys coming through town or the resident drunks either, including the father of 5-year-old Willy, whose mother is dead. Agatha finds Willy outside the Gilded Cage one night, dirty, hungry and scared, and takes him under her wing.

Scott is also beguiled by Willy, and between the 2 of them, Agatha and Scott become foster parents of sorts. Willy's father is killed in a barroom brawl, and then Willy lives in a back room at the Gilded Cage. See, now Agatha and Scott become friends of sorts because of Willy.

There's some plot twists and turns. Scott is currently sleeping with one of the dancer/ex-prostitutes even though one of the musicians sorta has a thing for her and admittedly neither she nor Scott are that much invested in their relationship. Agatha regrets her zealousness about prohibition when she realizes that it will close the Gilded Cage and she'll lose her friends and pseudo-family that they've become, although she continues to do things like write letters to the governor. There's a sort of suspense plot: who is leaving the anonymous threatening letters? And then there's the question of what will become of Willy if Scott leaves town.

Of course, Spencer's writing is still wonderful even if the plot isn't as interesting as others she's written. It's almost a paranormal - there's a ghost; it's almost a sequel - the DuFraynes of Hummingbird make an appearance.

The Gamble of the story is when Agatha has to choose whether to move to Mississippi to be Willy's governess even though she doesn't know what Scott's feelings are for her. She would rather be his wife than his employee, but she gambles that she will get her wish if she makes the move. If she doesn't move, she's doomed to spinsterhood in Kansas.

In the end it sorta left me going - ok, what's next? and not sighing or smiling, like I like to do after a satisfying story. So I'm going with 3 stars. She's still a better writer than Lisa Kleypas.

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