by Elda Minger, contemporary (2006)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-20681-5
The Kiss is not a typical contemporary romance in that it must have a love scene and it must follow the formula. Oh, that's not to say that this story is refreshingly original or groundbreaking. It isn't that revolutionary. However, what this book has in abundance is charm and warm fuzzies like I'm watching a wholesome and sweet romantic comedy that makes me feel really good inside. There are aspects in the premise of this story that are broken beyond repair but there are many other wonderful things about Elda Minger's The Kiss to make up for these flaws.
Tess Sommerville is about to get married to Paul but the night before the big day, she is unable to calm her bridal jitters so she takes a quick trip to the church that she's going to be married in the next day... only to find Paul and Marti, the reverend's daughter, indulging in biblical exploration in a way certainly not sanctioned by Jesus. Tess breaks down and runs crying to her best friend Brooke's place after trashing Paul's place and Brooke arranges with her other friend, Will Tremere, to help Tess get away from town for a while. Tess therefore finds herself on the road accompanying Will as he drives a van from Chicago to some place in the West Coast. He's returning the van and a dog, Sugar, to the middle-aged psychic woman friend of his, Elaine. Tess, her dog Toby, Will, and Sugar are in for a road trip that will change their lives.
This story exists in a vacuum, in the sense that in this story Tess comes off like a very real and likeable woman who's a little confused with life but is smart enough to move on with life after making the necessary adjustments and learning the necessary lessons. However, her background is ridiculous: Tess is trying very hard not to have the same broken marriage as her parents had, which is understandable, but what is not believable is how Tess manage to nearly marry Paul, who's a comic relief villain but still a whackjob, without even knowing what his job is much less his true nature. Tess in this story is a smart heroine while the Tess in the events leading up to the story in this book is pure plot contrivances in every way. I find it very hard to reconcile the human Tess and the plot contrivance Tess.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of savor in The Kiss. What really makes this book a charm to read for me is the atmosphere. This book is so romantic in a manner I don't come across often nowadays, where the characters are attracted to each other but they don't quickly rush into bed or into some external conflict involving secret agents and serial killers. Tess and Will first really like each other as friends, and then when they are attracted to each other, there is a realistic reticence on their parts due to a mix of shyness, nervousness, and "Oh no, will we screw up our friendship" worries. I especially like how Tess is rightfully worried that she may end up using Will as a rebound pick-me-upper and she doesn't want to treat such a nice friend in that unfair manner.
Ms Minger does an excellent job slowly allowing the feelings between her characters to simmer slowly from friendship to attraction to more. She captures that feeling of surprise felt by her characters when they realize that friendship has become something more deeper on each of their part very well. I also love how the secondary characters show up as just that, secondary characters without obnoxiously angling for sequels. They form a network of support around Tess like good friends in romantic stories like this one tend to do. In a way, I suspect that this book is also a perfect lift-me-up read for someone who has just overcome the "all men are bastards" post-breakup blues because goodness, the way everyone but the obvious goons rallies around Tess after her wedding-that-never-was is just too sweet. Brooke even plays a wonderful trick on Paul on the wedding day that has me in stitches while I just adore how these friends try to throw off Paul and Tess' stepmother by telling these two that Tess has decided to join a convent to nurse her broken heart. This is Will pretending to be a German priest telling off Tess' stepmother via the phone:
"Yah," said Will. "My own opinion? I tink dat seeing dis oaf she loved, dis foolish boy, slipping his weiner schnitzel to another woman - and a reverend's daughter! Ach, mein Gott! What it would do to an impressionable young girl! And in the sanctity of the holy church! You see, madam? It did something to her mind. How do you say - she is not herself."
Oh, and there's Brooke. If this is a romantic comedy, she's the heroine's best friend played by Joan Cusack - Brooke steals every scene she's in with her sass. This story has everything a woman needs to get over a bad ex: a very nice guy in Will and plenty of supportive and adorable friends like Brooke, plus an impulsive getaway that turns out to be a romantic adventure of a lifetime for Tess. The stepmother and Paul provide some comical moments of bumbling villainy as they try to get back Tess and while they are cartoon characters, they provide the story some additional comic moments as well as a chance for Tess to demonstrate how much she's grown as a person when she starts taking control of her life and tell these people to scram.
Even with a psychic dame who is all about seeing into the hearts of other people and two dogs who are in need of tender loving hugs, The Kiss never becomes too sentimental. The premise and the villains are straight out of the formula handbook of overused plot elements but the character development and the romance feel so real in so many ways. Tess is smart and she is not a victim at all. Will is probably too perfect as a person but again, this is exactly the kind of man Tess needs. He's not a womanizer, a rake, or a secret agent. Instead he's just a cute and adorable guy next door (who just happens to be British) who could easily be someone I could bump into on the street in real life. The normalcy of the hero adds to the charm of this down-to-earth yet romantic story, giving it a "yes, it could happen to you too!" quality that makes it a perfect pick-me-up book when I am feeling the blues.
And finally, there's this from Tess:
Things weren't so bad. She still had her health. She was facing a sort of death, though, the death of her previous self. But that was nothing compared to the real thing. And what made her thought of actual death so frightening was that she knew, deep inside, that there were so many things she hadn't done, so many things she'd wanted to do, and she hadn't come close to doing any of them. She'd been scared and had let that fear, both her own and what other people would think of her, got squarely in the way.
No more. Ever. Life was truly too short.
I can't disagree with that.
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