Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Crush On You," by Christie Ridgway

The Chick: Alessandra "Allie" Baci. With her family winery on the financial skids, her plan to turn the location into a wedding hotspot could save it from bankruptcy.
The Rub: Is she desperate enough to accept help from shallow Hollywood womanizer Penn Bennett?
Dream Casting: Lizzy Caplan.

The Dude: Penn Bennett. Trying to get in touch with his long-lost half-brothers, he volunteers to help fix up an historic cottage on the Tanti Baci property - in part because he's helplessly attracted to the prickly third Baci sister.
The Rub: However, it's clear Allie's called the "Nun of Napa" for a reason - she's still connected to the memory of her deceased fiance.
Dream Casting: Ryan Kwanten.

The Plot:

Penn: Hey, turns out I'm related to your neighbours...

Allie: How dare you be hot and popular and successful! You jerk!

Penn: Wait, what? Um, why don't I rebuild your cottage?

Allie: You got some nerve volunteering to help me with my business! What a prick!

Penn: Excuse me? What did I do?

Allie: You're a real piece of work! What kind of man turns me on at every opportunity just with his smile? A puppy-kicking pervert, that's who!

Penn: You are all kinds of crazy. But at least one of those kinds is inexplicably attractive! Marry me?

Allie: What took so you damn long to ask?

Penn: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Financially Incompetent Dad

1 Sexually Irresponsible Dad

2 Sequel-Baiting Sisters

1 "Enmity" Between Two Prominent Secondary Characters That Totally Doesn't Mask Flaming Mutual Attraction That Will Explode in the Final Book of the Trilogy, No Sir

1 Secondary Romance

1 Cheating Fiance

1 Dead Fiance

1 Thieving Bimbo

The Word: First off, I would like to extend a warm thank-you to Christie Ridgway, who kindly mailed me an ARC of Crush On You, the first book in her "Three Kisses" Trilogy, after I crushed hardcore on her novel How To Knit a Wild Bikini. Unfortunately, while Crush On You had a lot of Ridgway's trademark humour and charm, it seemed a shallower read than the previous two books of hers that I read and loved (Bikini and the equally-improbably-named The Care and Feeding of Unmarried Men).

Alessandra Baci is the youngest of the three Baci sisters, the owners of the Tanti Baci winery in Napa Valley. Unfortunately, while their father was on his deathbed he confessed to mucking up the winery's finances pretty hardcore and extracted a promise from them that they would try and save the family business rather than sell it. Allie, known to the well-intentioned townsfolk as the "Nun of Napa," takes this promise to heart, and believes her idea to turn the winery into a picturesque wedding destination could keep the Tanti Baci name afloat.

When the workers hired to renovate an historic cottage on the property get a better offer and start packing up, Allie dashes out to stop them - and ends up meeting Penn Bennett, the host of Build Me Up, an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition-type altruistic renovating show. To the town gossips, however, he's also known as the "bastard Bennett."

The (legitimate) Bennett brothers grew up next door to the Baci sisters (and are, in fact, silent partners in Tanti Baci), and when their own father died their world was also turned upside down when dear ol' dad included two previously-unknown bastard children in his will. While Penn is ostensibly visiting Napa Valley to get in touch with his long lost brothers, he's really there to hide out and lick his wounds after being humiliatingly conned by a trampy ex.

While getting a tour of the grounds, Penn witnesses how easily Allie sweet-talks the workers into staying, as well as how the whole town seems to fawn on her, and he immediately identifies her as a user who relies on her good looks and crocodile tears to manipulate those around her. Meanwhile, Allie pegs Penn as a shallow overconfident womanizer, and the both of them follow their preconceptions into Jackassville for a short while.

Penn's daytrip into Douchebag territory is swiftly derailed, however, when he discovers why the town venerates Allie as the "Nun of Napa." Five years ago, she was engaged to Tommy, the popular, athletic, straight-A, cancer-battling hometown hero. However, Tommy unexpectedly succumbed to his illness fifteen minutes before their wedding and the townsfolk have treated Allie with loving kid gloves ever since.

I rather enjoyed this plot element, as Christie Ridgway shows a knack for involving dark and prickly subplots in otherwise light and comedic stories and the darkness here is established very well. I love how Ridgway demonstrates that Allie's "Nun" status is comforting but also very isolating - everyone is so very, forcefully understanding of Allie's grief that they don't really allow her to get over it. As a result there's an unspoken understanding in the community that Alessandra Baci couldn't possibly date another man after saintly Tommy, and the subtle, textured atmosphere of the town's grief, regret, and guilt has pretty much enforced Allie's celibacy.

So, what didn't I like? Alessandra. She rides those preconceptions about Penn all the way to the end of the line at Big Bitch station. This may sound harsh, but it's like she only has two moods, Horny and Angry, and Angry is definitely her default mode. The word that keeps coming up when I try to describe her is ornery - she just likes being angry and she doesn't need a good reason. I guess the idea is that she prefers the control of being angry over, say, falling in love or losing her emotional independence, but the result is an unpleasant heroine who spends 90% of the novel bitching at the hero for things that are her fault. She rages at him for being good looking (which means he's vain), good with people (which means he's a huckster), and successful (which means he only cares about money) - and it all boils down to the fact that she's attracted to him and doesn't like it.

As for Penn, while I didn't not like him, he wasn't really a fully-fleshed-out character. I mean, the pieces are there. Raised dirt-poor by a single mum only to discover his two half-brothers lived in luxury only 400 miles away? Had a hefty chunk of his savings stolen by a bimbo blonde with a sob story? That's gotta sting. I mean, Ridgway sets up the trust issues and cynicism, but none of that really played into his relationship with Allie. I couldn't fully understand why he didn't feel he was right for Alessandra (discounting the number of times she tries to bite his head off for the audacity of possessing a hot ass). It amounted to a "this isn't my world, these aren't my people," but this is told more than it's shown.

Alongside this main romance, we also have a bland secondary romance between Baci cousin Gil and his unrequited love for his BFF Claire - who's on the cusp of marrying another man. This plotline might have sparked an interest had it not been for the fact that Gil is as passive as a coat rack and does virtually nothing but make calf-eyes at Claire until she comes to her senses.

Rounding out the cast, we have Allie's older sisters Stevie, who keeps her sequel-baiting to a nice minimum, and Giuliana, who spends the novel exerting Jemma-levels of effort declaring she has nothing but the Purest, Blackest Hatred (Not To Be Confused with Burninating Sexy Passion) for Penn's half-brother Liam.

To sum up, Crush On You could have been an excellent book. The elements were all there - drama, tragedy, angst. However, the narrative never digs very deep into these characters, but prefers to emphasize the under deeveloped surface conflict without really examining the characters' motivations for their actions. I wouldn't give up on the trilogy completely, but Crush On You could probably be skipped.

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