by Suzanne Simmons, contemporary (2005)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-20193-7
He drives a red Porsche. She drives a sleek silver BMW sedan. He was the bad boy who managed to turn his life around and made plenty of money chasing ambulances, er, being a hotshot lawyer. She was the highschool nerd whose future was so bright that she had to find some hotshot career in finance to buy herself expensive shades. Eric Law and Sydney Marie St John are two people that left the town of Sweetheart, Indiana a long time ago with memories of being taunted by their peers to keep their love for home alive.
Today, he returns to Sweetheart as a best man to his brother on Sam's wedding day (see the previous book Sweetheart, Indiana). She returns to Sweetheart when she was "asked" to leave her financial advisor job at a cushy company when she blew the lid on the company's Enron-friendly accounting practises. Don't worry, she made sure that they paid her very well to leave the job so she's at Sweetheart not to lick her wounds but to catch up with her Aunt Minerva, whom she hasn't seen in a while, and get some R&R while she considers what she wants to do next. While she nursed a crush on him during high school, she is sure that she is older and wiser now. But when she finds him stranded by the roadside and needing a ride ASAP, she'll learn otherwise.
The premise of this book is as old as time itself, it seems, because the past history of Eric and Sydney follows the "silly girl offered herself to the bad boy to have him turn her down, boo-hoo-hoo" formula in absolute fidelity. However, both characters manage to rise above their stereotypical beginnings and gain some depths in the process. Sydney, for example, is not some humorless twit unable to move on from Eric's rejection. She is depicted as an intelligent young lady and Ms Simmons allows her to be one, so Sydney has a great life once she leaves high school, Sweetheart, and Eric. Sure, she's lonely and looking for love, but isn't everyone? Eric is an appealing hero in the sense that he actually manages to turn his life around and make something for himself. While these two may be too beautiful, too wealthy, and too amazing to be considered "real", they are likeable people with no contrived baggages to hold them back.
Ms Simmons' style of writing is both a strength and weakness. She tends to give all her characters a similar voice, to the point that the good guys not only share the same principles and beliefs, they seem to share the same thought bubble at times. The drawback to this is that every character sounds like the same person after a while, just change gender, names, and hairstyle. This could easily lead to a monotonous sameness in the story. On the plus side, the author's style allows Eric and Sydney to really click. These two talk from the moment they meet so there are no misunderstandings acting as barrier between the rekindling of those two's relationship. This story is slow and there is very little external conflicts, so I get a story of two people reconnecting and finding love in the process with very little distraction from the secondary characters. Because Eric and Sydney not only understand each other but they manage to establish a bond in the process, their love story feels right and believable. I really like that.
But there are some external conflicts, very small ones, that unfortunately are resolved in such a halfbaked manner that they serve to sabotage my enjoyment of the story. Why does Ms Simmons insert the half-hearted subplot about someone stalking Sydney if it's going to be resolved in a throwaway manner? Minerva Bagley appears in the previous book as a stereotypical dotty wise old woman but here she gains plenty of depths as an old woman who is both wise and vulnerable. She is actually a more interesting character compared to Eric and Sydney because of this. However, the author pulls a happy ending for Minerva out of nowhere that makes Minerva look stupid because... well, let me just say that it is hard to imagine that Minerva and her Mr Right believe that their situation is what it is for so many decades when they are both living in a smalltown where people gossip on a daily basis. Minerva is depicted as an intelligent, sagely woman who understands people better than she understands herself, so this cluelessness on her part is really out of character.
I have a great time reading Goodnight, Sweetheart however because the characters are really well-drawn and they deserve a better story than the one they are stuck in. Minerva Bagley, especially, deserves better. Ms Simmons' vivid and tender depiction of the various eccentric, charming, and not-so-charming nuances and blatant quirkiness of Sweetheart makes the smalltown come alive without being too cutesy or overly-sentimental in the process. Underneath their super-rich and mega-gorgeous exterior, both Eric and Sydney come off as likeable and intelligent people who are right for each other.
While it is unfortunate that the external conflicts are so poorly-developed, I find myself reluctant to say goodnight to these characters when the story is done. Despite its flaws, it manages to remain an old-fashioned story where the focus is solely on the act of good and honest people falling in love, in a plot uncluttered with serial killers or secret babies. While it may not be a satisfying story all around, as a love story first and foremost, it strikes a chord with me. That's good enough for me.
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