by Stef Ann Holm, contemporary (2005)
MIRA, $6.99, ISBN 0-7783-2222-X
Stef Ann Holm's Leaving Normal leaves me ambivalent. It's the pacing: the story is either moving at a snail's crawl or it's moving at the pace of a snail after it has abused some anabolic steroids. There seems to be no sense of urgency, the romance just meanders around, and the drama at the end appears out of the blue instead of being the culmination of something that is building up throughout the story. It is as if the author is telling me, "It's okay to be bored. Put down the book, look around, go watch TV or something, because it's really okay!"
It's a pity that the book is that way, really, because the characters deserve better. Oh, the heroine Natalie Goodwin at the surface feels like a typical smalltown heroine stereotype: her ex-husband cheated on her and now that she's recently divorced, Natalie of Boise, Idaho has no time for men because she thinks she'd love to establish her career as the owner of the flower shop Hat and Garden first. She is also the responsible sister who is now keeping a watchful eye over her aging father and she has a daughter who's off to college and finding new boyfriends that Natalie isn't so sure she approves of. However, Ms Holm manages to take all these familiar traits in Natalie's character and put them together so that Natalie comes off as a real person instead of merely another hastily-assembled Stepford heroine from some stereotype factory. Ms Holm takes the pain to explain the motivations behind Natalie's actions and make them relatable to real life. Which is to say, Natalie doesn't act like she's too perfect or she's too determined to be a victim. She's just like a very nice person that I could easily meet anywhere.
Natalie thinks that her neighbor Tony Cruz is hot, but every woman does so Natalie's in good company. The fact that he's a fireman only adds to the hubba-hubba factor of that man. The thing is, Tony's married. However, the marriage falls apart early in this story and it's only a moment of time before Tony and Natalie acknowledge the attraction between them. Here is another instance where Ms Holm takes the trouble to make her story really work. Tony's marriage breaks down because the wife is having an affair, but Ms Holm makes clear that it's not a matter of blaming the ex-wife for being a slut or something: the marriage fails because of many things, including Tony's job that prevents him from being really there for her and the fact that they married for wrong reasons.
However, once Tony and Natalie acknowledge that they may be attracted to each other, the story starts to meander. Unfortunately, it's still early in the story when this happens. The author has set up some interesting issues that stand in the path of her characters' happily ever after: the fact that Natalie is nine years older than Tony, Tony wants children, and Natalie's legitimate fear that this may be a rebound affair for Tony (her own rebound affair after her divorce - with another man, not Tony - ended with some dents made on her self-esteem and plenty of confusion and hurt feelings in her heart). These issues are valid and realistic enough and they would make some interesting story if they are explored and addressed more fully. However, the story just touches these issues superficially before moving on in haphazard manner, touching briefly an issue or a soapbox moment (ladies, check for lumps in the breast regularly!) and then flitting on to something else just when things are starting to become interesting. Towards the end, the story turns into a very sugary Hallmark drama with all kinds of romanticization one could think of related to firemen.
Resolutions are wrapped nicely in ways that sometimes make me scratch my head. For example, if I'm Natalie at her age, I'd be seriously having second thoughts about popping out babies at that age to make the husband happy. However, Natalie turns more and more into Little Miss Perfect as the story progresses that eventually she's like the Perfect Suburban Heroine - she will always understand when Tony has to work late hours, she is so emotionally independent that she will never be unhappy when the job takes Tony away from her for those long hours, she will of course bear perfect children (age is only a number, kiddies!), and she will be the perfect Fireman's Wife ever. She even has no issues with her father hooking up with Tony's mother at the same time that she and Tony are hooking up. What is with all this creepy daddy-mommy/son-daughter hook-ups anyway? Are they supposed to be cute? I can only imagine how uncomfortable things can be when one couple have some issues and the other couple are forced to take sides.
Continuity issues are present here as well, a memorable one being that Natalie walked to a restaurant for a blind date, asks the guy working there to call her a cab when her date turns out to be a creep, runs to the ladies' room to recollect her thoughts, and then drives home in her car. Shouldn't there be someone to catch these things before the book is published?
Leaving Normal has all the ingredients to be a fine romance story but the execution fails to make good use of these ingredients. It's like having all kinds of expensive gourmet ingredients like abalones and truffles stocked up in the kitchen only to have the chef make me a big plate of fries. Sure, I like fries, especially well-cooked ones, but I see truffles in the kitchen and I always wanted to try those things. It's the same with this book. The writing is clean although continuity could be better (or less glaring, at least!), the characters are likable people, and I guess some people will really enjoy the sugary sentimental-overdose moments in the later parts of the book, but all that build-up in the first few chapters lead me to expect more that I can't help but to be very, very disappointed by the end result.
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