Thursday, July 03, 2008
"Welcome to Temptation," by Jennifer Crusie
The Chick: Sophie Dempsey, the goody-two-shoes sister to two rascally con artist siblings. Wants to make a plain, vanilla audition video for her brother's crazy ex-girlfriend and get the hell out of Dodge.
The Rub: Grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, and gave her virginity to a clean-cut Town Boy who ended up humiliating her. She's now convinced privileged town boys are all alike.
The Dude: Phineas "Phin" T. Tucker, mayor of the small, deceptively simple town of Temptation. His father, grandfather, and great-grandfather (all named Phineas!) were all mayor before him, so that's a lot of legacy to live up to. On the plus side, it means they've never had to change political posters or the mayor name on the "Welcome" sign for more than sixty years.
The Rub: Single dad to a cute little girl whose gold-digging mama died under suspicious circumstances. Lives with his mother - who has control issues of her own.
Sophie: What are the rules are filming movies in Temptation?
Garvey, the Hypocritical Conservative Mayoral Candidate: NO PORN!
Phin: Hey, are you guys making porn?
Sophie: No - but you're pretty.
Phin and Sophie: *commitment free sex!*
Sophie: *inspired screenwriting!*
Clea, Sophie's Client: Hey, that would make great porn.
Leo, Clea's Old Producer: Porn? I can make porn!
Zane, Clea's Ex-Husband: NO PORN!
Sophie: Crap. Guess he should have said "NO MURDER" instead.
Garvey: *steals porn tape and plays it on prime time cable TV*
Citizens of Temptation: *Phineas Lynch mob formed*
Phil: Oh, crap.
Sophie: No, wait, I made the porn!
Phil: That's hot. Marry me.
Romance Convention Checklist:
2 Very Bad Parents
1 Lacklustre Sexual Rival
1 Single Dad/Widower
1 Precocious Child
2 Precocious Adult Siblings
1 Game of Commando Pool
2 Counts of Attempted Muuuuuuurder
1 Relationship-Aiding Pet
2 Romances Involving Secondary Characters
The Word: I haven't had this much with a contemporary romance for a long time. As you can probably tell by my more recent reviews, I've been focusing more on historicals. I'd also been a little iffy about returning to Crusie because after reading the masterpiece that is Bet Me, I had the misfortune to read two books of hers that were either m'eh (Getting Rid of Bradley) or confounding (Anyone But You).
The Smart Bitches Trashy Books gals gave Welcome To Temptation a m'eh grade, but then again, they'd also given Anyone But You a Squeeeee! We Love This Book So Much grade, so really, I can't exactly use them as a reliable measuring stick against whether I'll like a Jennifer Crusie novel or not. In fact, while I love the Smart Bitches dearly, I disagree with a very great many of their reviews so maybe I should go for their books that they give C's to.
Welcome to Temptation has a lot of elements that I've come to identify as Jennifer Crusie Trademarks, namely:
1. A weird/ugly pet (usually a dog) has to show up somewhere. In this case, it's Lassie, a weird Corgi hybrid dog abandoned by its owner that Sophie the heroine adopts.
2. Unseemly amounts of ice cream (usually Dove Bars) will be eaten by the female characters. It's Dove Bars this time, which they seem to eat every day.
3. The hero/heroine will love one particular musician above all others and their songs will provide a continuous soundtrack throughout the novel. For instance, in Bet Me, it was Elvis Costello/Presley. In Temptation, it's Dusty Springfield. Who I just found out by looking at iTunes is a woman. I'm an idiot. I kept thinking Dusty Springfield sounded like some of folk singer a la Woody Guthrie.
4. One of the protagonists (although, ideally, both) will have terrrrrrible parents. Holy crap, did Jennifer Crusie have a bad childhood or something? Nearly all of her books that I've read have at least one protagonist whose parents are borderline monsters. In this case, Sophie's dad's a con man but entirely absent, but Phin's mom is an ice queen - although, to Crusie's credit, a very realistically motivated and three-dimensional ice queen.
5. One of the protagonists (usually the heroine) will be tailed by an ex with a bizarre and rare form of receptive aphasia that prevents them from comprehending sentences that involve the words "I want to break up with you," "I'm in love with someone else," "we're over," "I think we should see other people," and "I don't want to have children with you." In Temptation, it's Sophie's psychiatrist boyfriend Brandon, who you'd think as a psychiatrist would be able to identify the concept of denial.
Anyway, though, Welcome to Temptation was a wonderful Crusie example and not a tedious Crusie example. The vast cast of characters, the witty dialogue, the well-drawn setting, it all contributed to a contemporary romance that I genuinely loved and belongs now on my Keeper shelf.
Sophie and her sister Amy drive into the town of Temptation to do an audition video for Clea, a washed-up actress and former porn star who briefly dated their brother Davy before dumping him for a successful (if boorish) TV anchor. Normally Sophie and Amy just do wedding videos, but Amy's looking to branch out and she convinces Sophie to do an improvised film with Clea to jump-start her career.
Trouble follows just around the corner and they end up in a mild car accident with the town's ultra-conservative and perpetually losing mayoral candidate Stephen Garvey, who takes an immediate dislike to them. His hair-trigger suspicions are raised when they admit to filming a video in Temptation, and his natural conservative prejudice against "loose women" as well as Clea's former career choices convinces him they are planning on making a porn movie in Temptation.
He is eager to bring up the triple-threat of Outsiders, Movie People, and Uppity Women at the council meeting a few minutes later, which is presided over by Temptation's actual Mayor, Phineas T. Tucker. If Temptation were a kingdom, Phin would be the town's King. His father, Phineas T Tucker III, was mayor before him, as was his father Phineas T. Tucker II and his father Phineas T Tucker the first. They've used the same political posters for decades (that read Tucker - More of the Same), and have never even had to change the mayoral plaque at the bottom of the Temptation Welcome sign.
However, Phin really doesn't like being mayor. He's an easy-going guy who likes books, beers, pool, and his nine-year-old daughter Dillie. He's been pressed into service for several terms now by his Lady Macbeth of a mother, the family maxim "Tuckers don't lose," and the knowledge that if he doesn't win the mayoral race, Stephen Garvey will. The Tucker dynasty was broken only once when Phin's dad lost to Stephen's, but the two dark years of Mayor Garvey's rule convinced Phin that while he's not fond of being Phineas T. Tucker the Fourth, it's better than the alternative.
However, Phin knows that Stephen will use anything to his advantage in the upcoming election, including accusing Phin of abetting the production of pornography, so he heads down to Clea's house to make sure Sophie and Amy are on the up-and-up. He's attracted to Sophie, who identifies him as a Town Boy and goes into Hostile-Defense mode, but he isn't entirely convinced that their movie is clean.
However, after a few arguments and interchanges and handiwork, Sophie and Phin allow themselves to fall into a commitment-free sexual relationship. Both are attracted to each other but unwilling to get too involved, Sophie because Phin is a Town Boy, and Phin because he's been burned before (by Dillie's now-deceased mother) and knows that an obvious relationship to her will jeopardize his standing in the election.
Of course, both of them start getting stronger feelings for each other, but obstacles start showing up in droves, in true Crusie madcap screwball style. Sophie and Phin's attempts to be romantic are repeatedly sabotaged by their disapproving relatives. Clea's old producer Leo shows up and is willing to produce their film - but he'll have to spruce it up with actual pornographic scenes first or it won't sell. Clea's adulterous boor of an ex-husband, Zane, arrives and is willing to blackmail just about everyone in Temptation to get Clea's movie shut down - and then he winds up dead.
I think one of the main reasons I loved this book was the setting. The town of Temptation. Population, about two thousand. Jennifer Crusie manages to create a wonderful town with its own politics and battle lines and rivalries, and stuffs it full of fantastically diverse characters. I'm a fan of small-town stories, but oftentimes they can veer into the twee, where characters are wacky just for the wackiness of it. Crusie crafts a realistic environment with a large (and largely endearing) cast of characters, all of whom are well-written. None of them are given a cutesy sugar-cookie background, and none of them are cardboard cutouts with nametags that read, "Hi! My Quirk is __________".
I mean, even Liz was given a background that sufficiently explained her frequently atrocious behaviour. I know there are nasty or annoying people in this world, and I know that nasty and annoying people make for interesting literary conflict. But they have to be human characters and human beings are motivated and have reasons for the nasty or annoying shit they pull. Thankfully, all of Jennifer Crusie's characters get a thorough, well-written workthrough. So basically, I loved the novel. Loved loved loved it. I loved the hero - I loved the heroine. I loved the town and its quirks (like their phallic-symbol water tower). I'll definitely be re-reading this again and again. A+.