High Meadow
by Joan Wolf, contemporary (2003)
Warner, $5.99, ISBN 0-446-61043-7


Paging Joan Wolf, paging Joan Wolf: the legions of barely-legal spineless martyr-happy Regency-are-we bluestockings and their much older rakish boyfriends need you to tell their stories. Please stop writing contemporary stories. You're not only breaking the hearts of regency readers out there, but you are also driving me to stab my own heart with a knife just to end the excruciating pain I am experiencing from reading your truly gawdawful High Meadow.

Actually, there is very little that is contemporary about this story. The characters are flat and sometimes they feel as if they are the more familiar Lady Spinelessa and Lord Rakerfella dressed up in shirts and jeans. In fact, if this story is "contemporary", it is as contemporary as the, er, 1960s? Those days when you can have your neighbor arrested by accusing him or her as a communist. Good times, those times.

This book is perfect for readers whose last contemporary book is The Girl And The Pony. I mean, the heroine here runs a horse farm thing in a place filled with lots of grasses around the house and she buys her adopted son a thoroughbred. This story is set in a time where when Kate Foley tries to pass off her sister's boy Ben as hers to a scumbag, the scumbag knows she is lying because she doesn't have a wedding ring. The values of this book go back to the "good old days", maybe back to the pre-WW1 days, I don't know. The only evidence that this book isn't a posthumously published 1920s book is that Joan Wolf uses the word "DNA" in her story.

Kate Foley lives with her predictably warm-hearted 100% trusting mother and Ben, the son of Kate's late sister. Apparently the father abandoned Sister Dearest, and Kate now doesn't trust men forever and ever. When Sister Dearest's ex-boyfriend reappears one day, Kate fails to keep Ben's identity from coming out. (Because, you see, she isn't wearing a wedding ring, and everyone and Joan Wolf knows that a woman can't have children without a wedding ring!) So this scum heads off to the library, goes online, and discovers the address of baseball superstar Daniel Montero. He writes Daniel a letter. See, Daniel is the real daddy of Ben. Most importantly, you can apparently find out the home addresses of celebrities from the World Wide Web. Inspired, I immediately search online - alas, in vain - for Hugh Jackman's home address for eight hours - in the end I have to concur that Joan Wolf is a smarter online user than me.

Daniel wants to be part of Ben's life. "No!" Kate screams - ow, my eardrums - because remember, she hates men, men are all scums, yadda yadda yadda. Then as Ben and Daniel bond, Kate learns what a good man he is and finally surrenders her halo of sexual inexperience to learn from the master.

High Meadow is already unbearably corny in its premise of horses and baseball and everything overwrought and Sweet High Country. But it's hard to get a grasp on the contemporary setting, especially when the hero has a valet (who isn't called a valet but... ) and when the sexual norms of this story is ridiculously archaic (see wedding ring scandal above). The villains are pathetically evil and stupid, while the hero is so wholesomely super-duper that he is like patriotism minus the red and white stripes. Kate is one-dimensional - she starts out a one-note (high D) shrill and unreasonable tarmagant and in the end she is the poster girl for all that is Maternal, Feminine, and Pure in a way that only ultra-conservative Mum Brady types will experience orgasms over.

Most offensive is Ben who isn't a character as much as an ornament of forced cuteness that comes complete with, I quote, "jeans, sneakers, and a striped and collared knit shirt". Ben cannot scream "pathetic sad sack" more than if the author makes him chubby and sucking a lollypop. For a kid, his speech can be manipulative, unkiddylike, and cringe-inducing. Nothing like this kind of dialogues to demonstrate that Ben isn't a kid as much as a plot device by the author trying too hard to revive The Brady Bunch nostalgia.

"I cried when that man (this is referring to someone in Dan's opponent team in a baseball match - Mrs G) got a hit. But Mommy said that you would win the game for your team and that was what was important. And you did win." He held up his glass. "To Daddy!"

Yes, Ben is six going on seven. And you're all invited to my 15th birthday next week. Bring male strippers. We'll all have fun.

Have I started with the horrible, clunky, and awkward "What on earth is she yammering about?" writing style yet?

"I am going to kill Marty Lockwood," Kate said. "I am going to eat his heart in the marketplace." (Page 39)**

Perhaps it's having Ben, Daniel thought as he listened to the slowing of his heartbeat. Children make you feel so vulnerable. Didn't someone once say that he who has wife and child has given hostages to fortune? (Page 95)

How does he do it? Molly thought, looking at Daniel as he threw his warm-up pitches. How can he function in the middle of such mass hysteria? (Page 97)

They looked at each other with the sympathy and increased interest of people who have known suffering. (Page 99)

The especially macabre last one is Ben's grandma Molly falling in love with Dan's valet guy. Molly has cancer, but she is written in a one-dimensional way that it is hard to see her as anything but a character designed just to win my sympathy. In short, she, like everything else in this story, feels fake.

The conflicts in this book are ridiculous. Kate will not let Dan take Ben to Colombia because apparently everyone's a kidnapper in Colombia. The grandma cannot get her man because the good woman she is, she has to spend 24/7 catering to Kate and Ben. When Ben finally gets kidnapped - oh dear, did I spoil the story? - he turns into the Human Lassie that I actually burst out laughing because it is so ridiculous. The author also abuses the italicized fonts on her Words program, although since she's not Thea Devine, she'll probably get off easy on that one.

Ridiculously simplistic conflicts dragged on and on, stark black/white portrayal of "good" women (you have to stay at home and take care of the kids 24/7 while running a horse ranch without actually doing anything business-like in the ranch), underdeveloped main characters, and a kid who comes off like a precocious ghoul all make High Meadow an excruciating read. It makes mountains out of goosebumps. This is like grandma trying to go hip only to lose the plot and got smacked by the uglies instead. I feel rather embarrassed for Joan Wolf: she seems so out of touch with the contemporary romance subgenre, she actually makes the Secret Baby Secret Lingerie Virgin Mommy Sheriff FBI Navy Seal Millionaire Hero Author Brigade of the Harlequin Zoo come off like progressive feminists.

Listen to the wailings of the Regency martyr doormats, Ms Wolf. Come back to play in Heyerland. All is forgiven ma'am - step into the curricle and we'll take you back to old London town where the matrons of Almacks will give you a royal welcome. The outside world is very mean and ugly, isn't Georgette's La-La-La Land so much sweeter and nicer and safer?

Rating: 36

** Thanks to readers who write to me saying that this is a line from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. But even taking this into account, how many woman do you know will say things like "eating one's heart in the marketplace" when she is angry? In the context of the story, this phrase still looks ridiculous and anachronistic. Anachronism in a contemporary romance - who would've thought? Heh heh heh.


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