by Janice Sims, contemporary (1997)
Arabesque, $4.99, ISBN 0-7860-0405-3
Antoinette "Toni" Shaw is undoubtedly Janice Sims' greatest female character to date. I can't actually remember the names of this author's other heroines, but mention to me "Toni Shaw" and I will go, "Ah! That Toni Shaw! I remember her - whatta lady!"
A former activist that has undergone so much (including being dumped by her useless boyfriend and raising their children single-handedly) only to emerge an attractive, strong-willed, and intelligent mature woman, Toni is larger-than-life, dominates every scene she is in, and steals the story without making any apologies for her being herself. So what is the big problem, you ask? Toni Shaw is not the heroine of All The Right Reasons - she is a major character as the plot of the book revolves around her, but it is her daughter Georgiana "Georgie" Shaw that is supposed to be the focus of the romance here. A very vivid secondary character whose presence is like a very bright firebrand that makes everyone around her come off lacking in some way or the other, Toni Shaw is simultaneously this book's biggest strength and biggest problem.
To understand this story, in fact I have to explain the background of Toni Shaw. See the problem here? Georgie is the heroine, but I have to talk about Toni. Anyway, Toni met Charles Waters when she was seventeen. It was 1967. Toni was a college activist protesting the Vietnam War as well as working for African American progressive movements. She met Charles and it was love. But Charles, a rich kid from a conservative old-money family, abandoned her when his family pressured him to (marry her and lose the moolah, sonny boy!). She gave birth to twins Georgie and Brianna ("Bree") and raised them single-handedly with some help here and there from good friends. Fast forward thirty years later to 1997. Charles, now a widower, is looking for his daughter (he doesn't know that Toni had twins) and Toni understandably refuses to respond to his letters.
As a result, Charles hires private investigator Clay Knight to locate the whereabouts of the now reclusive Toni Shaw and persuade her to let Charles meet his daughter. Clay admires Toni as she was his childhood idol. While he first approached her by pretending to be a journalist seeking an interview, he later reveals his actual reasons in meeting her. The family reunion is complicated however when someone starts making attempts on Georgie's life. Georgie is a public defender. Has she annoyed some dangerous criminals? Or is there someone in Charles' life wanting to make sure that Charles will not pass on his inheritance to two daughters he has never known until now? Will anyone remember that Georgie and Clay are in love at the end of the day, or are we still bummed that Clay and Toni didn't get it on instead? What is the name of the heroine again? (And no, it's not Toni Shaw!)
Clay is a wonderful hero - his past isn't sunny, but this man has very little baggages. He has some leftover issues including a death of a loved one that caused him to leave the police force, but he looks outwards and focuses on being a better man instead of wallowing too much in self pity about his past. And when he does go on some pity party trip, there is always someone that give him a gentle kick in the behind so that he snaps out of it. That's what I always say secondary characters should do - give the main characters a helping hand instead of letting them indulge in their nonsense.
Georgie is a smart and intelligent heroine, and her career is definitely not window dressing here. She's with the public legal services and I get to see her do her job well during the course of the story. But poor Georgie practically disappears as the action heats up, as if her being overwhelmed by her mother isn't bad enough. There is very little emphasis on Georgie and Clay's love story here. Instead, Ms Sims concentrates so much on Toni and Charles and the problems that arise from their reunion that it's obvious how much Ms Sims enjoys writing about dear old Toni.
To be fair, Ms Sims continues the story of Toni and Charles as well as that of Georgie and Clay in a sequel, A Second Chance At Love. But even so, Ms Sims tacks in too many ongoing subplots in that book, shortcharging me once more on the stories of Georgie and Toni and the men that love these women. She has a lot of unfinished business where Toni, especially, is concerned. Toni Shaw needs a book of her own that is uncluttered by an ensemble cast.
While I am disappointed with the identity of the typical villain in the story, on the whole, family dynamics and character development are excellent, although Toni Shaw is largely the reason why this book comes so alive to me. There is humor, there is drama, and there is realistic emotions (Toni is still angry with Charles and Charles offers no excuses for his past behavior, only remorse). Unlike the author's debut, All The Right Reasons (her second novel) shows such a marked improvement on pacing and style that it is as if the author has been touched by enlightenment in between writing the last book and this one.
But as much as I enjoy this book, I can't help feeling that my enjoyment isn't exactly because of, er, all the right reasons. Toni Shaw is simply amazing, but I can't help feeling that she also, in a way, ruined this book for every other character sharing the pages with her. Janice Sims really need to write a book that is solely about Toni and Charles, and I don't think fellow fans of Toni Shaw will mind if the author retells the tale of Toni and Charles, as long as Toni Shaw in that book will remain the Toni Shaw I know and love and that Ms Sims expands Toni's story to the scope she deserves. It's a tough task, but that's what happens, unfortunately, when an author creates a character whose story is so amazing and so larger-than-life that readers like me want to scream in frustration when Toni's story is reduced to fragmented episodes in an ensemble family saga. Give me that book, Ms Sims, please.
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