Hot Dish
by Connie Brockway, contemporary (2006)
Signet, $7.99, ISBN 0-451-21983-X


Connie Brockway's contemporary debut Hot Dish is so much better than her last few historical romances so I do think it's time some of her fans stop bombarding her with emails offering everything from firstborns to paid-for male escorts for the weekend to a mansion in Mauritius if she will return to writing about dukes and bluestockings. Having said that, to be honest, I think I've read better books from this author.

One of my pet peeves in fiction as well as movies is the fact that it is the norm for heroes to go from nothing to riches. This hero will often ditch his faithless first girlfriend or wife who didn't appreciate him spending so much time at work and then hook up with a much younger replacement who of course loves him and understands him when she's not cooking, cleaning, and ironing after him. However, when it comes to stories featuring heroines with dreams, why is it nearly always that these heroines will always realize at the end that Fame Isn't Everything and it's best to go back to a simple life? We never see rag-to-riches stories with male main characters coming to such an epiphany. No, they always end up becoming the richest and most powerful men on the block and everyone wants to kiss their asses. But when the main character is a woman, oh, let's take out the violins and play the whole It's So Lonely Trying To Be Rich And Famous tune.

And, unfortunately, Hot Dish is the popcorn that lands right in the middle of the hot pan, so to speak, when it comes to me and this pet peeve of mine.

This story starts out very subversively enjoyable, though. I'm from a smalltown myself and I can actually relate very well to Jennifer Hallesby. Our aspiring society belle was ripped from her white-linen roots when her parents lost their money and found herself living in a cabin located in Fawn Creek, Minnesota. Our teenage Jenn is not happy with her new lifestyle since she has always imagined that she deserved a better life than being stuck in the middle of nowhere. Her dream now is to get out of Fawn Creek. Her first attempt to do this is by winning the Buttercup Pageant (and more importantly, the scholarship that comes with the title). Unfortunately, her own school, led by the mother of a jealous rival, sabotages her to the point that she is disqualified when she is this close to winning the pageant.

At the same time, Steve Jaax is on the run. The sculptor had recently divorced his supermodel wife and they were fighting bitterly over a sculpture of his, Muse In The House, that is said to be his best work ever at that time. Steve arranged for the sculpture to be stolen. Steve and Jenn first meet when our disappointed and even tearful lass sat while Steve sculpted a likeness of her head from butter (it's a pageant tradition, don't ask). Steve ends up slipping the key to the vault where the thief he's hired had placed the sculpture into the butter sculpture right when a bounty hunter shows up to apprehend Steve for jumping bail. Steve is dragged away before Jenn's eyes.

Twenty-one years pass. Jenn is now forty and she finally has her biggest break to date when a rigid conservative millionaire decided that clean-cut and virtuous Jenn will be the perfect host of a Martha Stewart-like TV show about home and stuff on his good-morals TV network. Jenn now plays up her hometown gal persona, even adopting a more "local" name (Jenna Lind), when deep inside she detests Fawn Creek for always treating her like an outsider and even sabotaging her attempts to escape it. Meanwhile, Steve Jaax experienced his epiphany and regained his artistic drive after sculpting Jenn from butter so the story of Steve Jaax and the Butter Head becomes a prominent aspect of the celebrity that is Steve Jaax. Today, our hero is pushing fifty but he has finally become a celebrity with his sculptures becoming fashionable among the very rich people out there.

Eventually, the mayor and his people in Fawn Creek discover that Jenn's Butter Head hadn't been melted like it would traditionally be twenty-one years ago. In fact, Jenn's mother kept it in a freezer all these years. To rejuvenate tourism and trade, these folks hit on an idea. For the sesquicentennial this year, they will make it extra grand. They will bring out the Butter Head and invite Steve and Jenn to pose with it during the usual parade thingies. Jenn won't go but her TV network people think she should since this would only mean some easy publicity for her upcoming TV show. And when these people think she should, they actually mean she must, so she unhappily heads back to town. Meanwhile, Steve normally won't bother with such events until he learns that the Butter Head - and the key inside the sculpture - still exists. Fawn Creek, here he comes! Of course, there are other people who also want the Butter Head so it is going to be a sesquicentennial to remember.

There are much more to the plot and I've tried to give a synopsis without giving too much away. Let's just say that Ms Brockway has put a lot of her obvious fondness of her setting into story: Fawn Creek comes alive in her prose and the eccentricities, oddities, and uniquely smalltown quirks of Fawn Creek can be most charming without becoming too odd or otherworldly. If Fawn Creek exists and Ms Brockway is the real estate agent selling some swampland in that place, Hot Dish is going to be her secret weapon.

I also love the main characters. Jenn is an interesting character. I suspect that the words "cold" and "selfish" will be used to label her by some people to whom heroines don't cut it unless they are selfless and self-effacing straight out of the starting line. She really doesn't like Fawn Creek and I can see why. Fawn Creek hasn't been kind to her even as she isn't exactly very nice to the people of Fawn Creek in turn. Ms Brockway allows Jenn to unravel as the story progresses and I find a character with many interesting aspects to her personality. Jenn is cold, sometimes blinded by her own prejudices, but at the same time her heart is in the right place where her parents and friends are concerned. I also adore Steve who is shady, slimy, egocentric, and charming all at once without making any apologies for being what he is. Steve's drive and way of looking at things do make him come off convincingly as a self-absorbed man of art and his roguishness is tampered very nicely with his slow mellowing throughout this story.

Jenn and Steve reunite and eventually hit the sack within days. On the other hand, these two really do connect convincingly and they even complement each other nicely. Jenn is pragmatic and cynical to a fault while Steve, well, he's an artist and Jenn is probably what he needs to bring him back to earth now and then. I also have a good laugh over how Steve quickly falls in love with the Lodge, the home and sometimes-inn of Jenn's parents, when Jenn could only see the haphazard architecture of the Lodge and view the place as the symbol of her parents' imprisonment in Fawn Creek.

While I adore everything about the set up of Hot Dish, I feel hideously let down by the payoff. I'm going to go into spoilers so please stop reading here if you don't want to be spoiled.

Anyway, I suppose it is to be expected that Jenn will eventually follow the time-honored Storyland Tradition of realizing that she doesn't need fame to be happy - in fact, she is unhappy - so all she really needs is the love of a good man to make her happy. Still, I wish Ms Brockway has done things better in this book. My problem is this: Jenn is never given any choice in this story. Right from the point when this story takes off with Jenn at the age of forty, it is made clear that Jenn Is Wrong. Her Bosses Are Evil. TV Is Evil. Fame Is Evil. Woman, Stay At Home And Love Your Man, Don't Ask For Anything More. That kind of thing. Towards the end, Jenn is hit very hard in the head by many people in this story telling her that she is so, so, so wrong. Fame Is Evil! She's Not Going To Be Happy With Fame! Ms Brockway may as well turn Jenn into the Titanic and set her crashing into an iceberg the size of a giant anvil because she is not even subtle with her treatment of Jenn's epiphany.

I don't get Jenn's epiphany to be honest. Ms Brockway has the other characters telling Jenn right in her face that, at the end of the day, Jenn will be happy in Fawn Creek because apparently the town knows the real her. I'm confused at that point. In the beginning of the story, it's clear that Jenn and the people she met and crossed at Fawn Creek shared mutual dislike. It seems to me that if Fawn Creek knows the real Jenn, which I doubt, obviously they don't care much about this real Jenn. Why then is Ms Brockway selling me this psychobabbly concept that Fawn Creek is where Jenn belongs and they treat her like a nobody while giving Steve the red carpet treatment because they "know" Jenn and therefore she is "just" one of them? I don't see the rationale behind that reasoning. The people of Fawn Creek do nothing in this story to earn Jenn's respect. They take everything from her, they are using her celebrity for their own purposes, and heck, one of them ends up accidentally abetting Jenn's being blackmailed when Jenn is back in town. So Jenn is supposed to love this place because these people know the "real" her? Ms Brockway, I feel, makes a mistake by not showing me that the people of Fawn Creek deserves Jenn's affection. She spends more time telling me why Jenn dislikes that place so the last-moment in-my-face "Fawn Creek is never that bad! Really! It's your home!" resolution doesn't make sense to me.

And even so, I wish Jenn is given a choice to learn from her mistakes. In this story, Steve is allowed to be petty and learn from it. On the other hand, he and several characters in this story don't even allow Jenn the luxury of getting some payback to a town slimeball in the casino. Jenn is told that What She Wants To Do And Is Doing Are So So Wrong. Ultimately, the fact that Jenn is told to do what is considered right by the others doesn't sit well with me, especially when Ms Brockway at the same time makes sure that Jenn realizes that the people she is consorting with on the path to Fame and Fortune are all nasty people.

The way I see it, Jenn does deserve some love. This story ends up however making Jenn learn that the only way she will be happy is if she happily plays the martyr and shows some love to everybody even if they may not deserve her affections. I don't know. I like Jenn. I just wish that this story allows her to be right for once. I mean, what happens in the end? Am I supposed to believe that Jenn will be happy running the Lodge with Steve?

What does Jenn want? I know what Steve wants - a new wife (he has a catalogue of ex-wives in his past), a nice home that caters to his artistic sensibilities, and oh yes, maybe love. Hot Dish can be pretty convincing in selling me the happily-ever-after of Steve and Jenn. However, I don't know what Jenn wants. I don't think she does either because her epiphany is pretty much drilled into her by Steve, her good friend Heidi, and her mother one after the other. Fawn Creek is your home. They know you. You belong here. Meanwhile, the TV people are bad. They just want to use her (and... Fawn Creek doesn't?) and they don't respect her (like the people of Fawn Creek... do?). Jenn has no choice. It's not like she can move on to a different career that will still take her out of Fawn Creek because Ms Brockway doesn't allow her this option.

I know what Ms Brockway is trying to present here. It's like how we can sometimes really dislike our relatives or siblings but at the end of the day life still feels incomplete without their presence in our lives. Perhaps Fawn Creek isn't that bad (although this is not shown in the story) since Jenn obviously blames the town for so many things that she most likely has an exaggeratedly negative view of the town. The heavy-handed treatment of Jenn coming to her "senses" however smacks more of smalltown propaganda rather than a satisfying culmination of Jenn's voyage of self-discovery. Because, really, what self-discovery are we talking about here? People tell Jenn what to do, what to feel, and in the end she is beaten down by unpleasant revelations after revelations about how horrible any option other than Fawn Creek's tight chokehold around her neck would be into accepting what she is told. And speaking for myself, I don't like that Jenn is forced to love Fawn's Creek in such a contrived yet heavy-handed manner.

Hot Dish has its moments and when it is good it is really good. However, I find the last few chapters of the book too preachy and heavy-handed, with the author's hand all but visible as she practically forces Jenn's head under water, so to speak, in order to end the story. This story has complexity at times and Ms Brockway tries to present Jenn's point of view at several points, but the rushed and anvil-laden preachfest at the end strips this story of any depths and reduces it into a simplistic smalltown-is-best propaganda. I mean, come on now, am I supposed to believe that a smalltown with people petty enough to go on a vendetta against a spoiled and pampered teenage Jenn will make a pleasant home for a lesbian couple who are expecting a child? Just because some important lady in town is throwing this couple a baby shower? Can Hot Dish be any more patronizing towards the end?

Like I've said, I believe the author has written better books before.

Rating: 81


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