by Deborah Smith, contemporary (2007)
BelleBooks, $16.95, ISBN 978-0-9768760-7-6
I know I can expect few things to happen when I read a book by Deborah Smith. One, I'll start crying by page thirty and feeling vaguely embarrassed by it afterwards, with this pattern continuing throughout the rest of my reading. Two, I will find at least one of the main characters too adorable and sometimes even quirky for words. Three, I will find myself wanting to make a trip to the beautifully described town where the story takes place in. A Gentle Rain, sure enough, has me going through the above like clockwork.
However, like the author's more recent works, this one walks a fine line between being heartwarming and being outright manipulative in a shamelessly too-sentimental manner. Also, like those recent works, the author isn't above stepping on her soapbox to make enemies out of right-leaning people everywhere. I have no issues with this, of course, and I think Ms Smith has actually restrained her inner Michael Moore more noticeably here compared to those previous books, but some readers who may not appreciate the author's soapbox may want to be aware of this.
I get really scared at first when I realize that the author has roped in a secondary cast of misfits that aren't just socially "out of the in gang" types. The hero Benji Thocco's brother Joey has Down syndrome and a very weak heart. The misfits of society that work in Thocco Ranch include Cheech and Bigfoot (two rather slow-thinking fellows), the autistic little person Possum, Roy and Dale who are both suffering from spina bifida, and the mildly mentally-handicapped couple Lily and Mac. There are also some eccentric mother hen figures around, but I'm really concerned that the Legion of Special People are going to drag me through a sappy and disgustingly sentimental hell of a Hallmark movie, especially when the story opens with Joey's heart threatening to fail on the poor wheelchair-bound sweetie for good before the year is out.
Fortunately, the author only shamelessly puts her Legion of Special People through emotionally manipulative moments once or maybe five times in this story. On the whole, these folks are adorable people instead of figureheads for some sort of political agenda. I also don't feel that the portrayal of these folks is patronizing or exploitative. If anything, I think Ms Smith did a pretty good job in showing me that, especially with Mac and Lily, these people are defined not solely by their physical and mental handicap alone. Mac and Lily are people too, they just don't see the world like you and me but they are people nonetheless.
Our heroine Karaja Whittenbrook finds herself being part of the chain gang in Thocco Ranch when she realizes shortly after the death of her parents that she was actually adopted. Determined to find her biological parents, she learns that they are mentally handicapped. Her parents are Mac and Lily. When she learns where her parents are staying, she decides to become "Karen Johnson" and head over to Florida to get to know them better. She is soon fixing up things and filling up the empty spaces in the hearts of the folks of Thacco Ranch. Sure enough, she and Ben are soon attracted to each other, but she hasn't told him that she is actually a very rich heiress and you know that issue is going to come up sooner and later.
Kara is a larger than life heroine and boy, ain't she one. She can speak many languages, she is a horse whisperer type of person, she is a great cook who uses organic and healthy ingredients to make actually yummy food, she is an environmentalist like her parents, she used to be chubby but is now adorable in a wholesome and healthy curvy way, she is understanding and kind, et cetera. Oh, the list of accomplishments of this wunderkind can go on and on. But when I normally will take up a crucifix to ward off such heroines (or use the crucifix to impale such creatures), I find myself adoring Kara to bits. You see, she is funny, she has a great sense of humor about things, and she also has a working libido and she ain't ashamed of that. Like always, Ms Smith allows me into Kara's head so well that this character comes off as very real to me despite the fact that she does things creepily perfect in every way here.
The hero Ben is a more boring fellow. In fact, I think he's one of the more boring heroes by this author as this fellow is a stereotypical self-absorbed "It's all about me!" whiner. When he was sixteen, he ended up being the kept boy for an older woman as she managed very well his career as a luchador and later telenovela star. He got plenty of money to buy a ranch as a result, but is he grateful? No, he's constantly moaning about how he will never let himself be used like that again. Of course, when it comes to "equal trust" and other nonsense that he says he believes in, he really means that he wants to be the sole breadwinner. Anything else, his big baby pride will just deflate and die. In this story, Kara makes everyone's life for the better but when her very rich background is exposed, do you think Ben will be grateful to Kara and love her more for her generosity and kindness? Of course not. This guy is such a predictable big baby in that manner.
I actually find the romance the most boring aspect of the story, especially when Ben's predictable big baby antics cause the last third of this book to drag through a most tedious pace as he tries to pretend that his willy hasn't shrunk by at least seven inches by his inability to accept that his rear end has been saved several times by Kara. I still believe that Kara is way too good for this bore by the last page of the book. I actually find him boring but tolerable, mind you, until he pulls his stupid big baby stunt in the last third of the book and has me rolling my eyes upwards in disgust.
Also, the second half of the book is pretty weak in my opinion compared to the really excellent first half because this second half sees some plot developments that are too much over the top for me. The poor sullen horse adopted by the clan turns out to be the best race horse in the world under the amazing horse whispering skills of Kara and the story then turns into a mutant offspring of that pig movie Babe crossed with Seabiscuit galloping dramatically to the finish line while a band of autistic kids play off-key (but valiantly, nonetheless) the theme song of Chariots Of Fire in the background. Really, everything feels way too much for me, especially when the villains in the story are snarling caricatures that add to the whole cartoonish feel to this part of the story.
But the first half of the story is wonderful. Sure, there are some sappy moments, but let me tell you, as a veteran of several defeats in the hands of this author, I can't win where Ms Smith is concerned. Clearly, she plays dirty, but I don't know how she does it. Where I would normally scoff at obviously manipulative scenes, here I find myself reaching for the Kleenex box. How can I resist such unexpectedly exhilarating, funny yet awww-so-sweet moments like this one from Ben?
This isn't the sweetest comparison but it's all I've got: Watching a sexy woman ride a horse is like watching a stripper dance. It's the rhythm, it's the rocking motion, it's the soft-thighed muscular power. It hypnotizes men so that they just stand there, like I did, hat in hand. What Karen did later with my hat - putting it to her face, inhaling my scent, then setting my hat on her head - would live in my mind like a pulsing red light and a gyrating pelvis from then on.
Look. This is just how men see things.
I mean it in a good way.
Indeed, the first half contains many such sweet moments from Ben. I especially love how he all but swoons at the sight of Kara holding a knife to ward off cartoon redneck bad guys. Therefore, my disappointment when Ben turns out to be such a boring and predictable baby in the late third or so of the story is keen indeed, because he has some really good scenes in the early parts of the book. Let me put it this way: when Karen finally tells off the loser that made life hell for her biological parents and scores a big one for the good guys, Ben is busy sulking and wallowing in self-pity in his room. I tell you, Ms Smith is breaking my heart there and then, I tell you. It hurts.
In a way, A Gentle Rain is a predictable feel-good story that comes complete with a happy ending that is the mother of all Hallmark happy endings, where people that should die get miraculously recovered and everyone laughs and dances happily to that happy place in the moon to live with Frodo and Gandalf. Or something. But this is the book's strength as well as weakness. It's a strength because no matter how much Ms Smith dips into the sugar well for her story, she still manages to play me like a violin. I am actually sobbing out loud when Kara finally tells Lily and Mac that she is their daughter that my husband for a while gets worried that I might have turned on the TV and catch some news of Hugh Jackman's tragic accident or something. In fact, the story of Lily and Mac is easily one of the most heartbreaking thing about this story, which is why I am such a blubbering teary-eyed mess of a sucker for their happy ending.
I like A Gentle Rain, but not as much as I love a scene here or there or the secondary characters. I know, I'm not making sense here. What I'm trying to say is that I love many things about this book, from the heroine to Mac and Lily to the gorgeous and lushly described setting. But if I look at this book as a whole, I find that I am not enamored with the predictable romance or the horse-racing Hallmark cartoon in the second half or so of the story. Therefore, as much as a part of me adore the misfits, the mermaids (don't ask - go read this book), the setting, and the heroine, I can't help thinking that the author has written better books before. Therefore, I can't give A Gentle Rain a keeper grade even if a part of me wants so badly to.
Bring on the mermaids, Ms Smith. I'll be waiting.
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