The Crossroads Café
by Deborah Smith, contemporary (2006)
BelleBooks, $16.95, ISBN 0-9768760-5-1

Deborah Smith's The Crossroads Café is arguably one of the most flustering books I've read in months. Maybe years, even. When I finally close the book, I feel like I've just spent ten rounds in the boxing ring with the author and let me tell you, she packs a mean punch. At the risk of being called a sore loser, let me say that I'm pretty sure she plays dirty as well because just when I'm sure I've the upper hand, she sneaks up on me and wham, down I go for the count.

This book really flusters me because as you may know, I'm a cynical reader. The moment I spot the author's blatant attempts to manipulate me using melodrama and sentimental pap, my hackles go up at once because I cannot stand sugary sweet contrived melodrama, which is why I generally avoid Hallmark dramas. I'm the person who buys greeting cards with rude messages. While I have adored books by this author in the past, I cringe when Deborah Smith tries to get all sentimental on me in her last few books. Here, in The Crossroads Café, she unleashes the greeting card collecting Hallmark Marm in her on me with such a force that I'm surprised I'm not buried under a mountain of sugar by the end of the book. Every single sentimental Triumphant Inspirational Movie of the Week cliché is present in this book in full My Little Ponies-meet-Carebears technicolor. The cynic in me recognizes what Ms Smith is trying to do but the sap in me, damn that silly thing, is more than happy to play the violin along with the author. The cynic in me is screaming by page 173, "Please, please, I can't take all this fake sugary sap anymore! Think about your pancreas, woman!" But the sap in me is too busy trying to wipe my eyes because the tears are preventing me from making out the words on the page I'm trying to read. The cynic in me want to sneer, "It seems like Deborah Smith is probably a little too eager to get another book of hers optioned by Disney with Hallmark as Plan B, or maybe an adaptation into Reader's Digest, doesn't it?" The sap in me goes instead, "Oh, be quiet. I can't take any more of this! It's so heartbreaking and funny all at once. I have to read it again!"

So what am I going to do, people? What can I do? I reread it again just to see whether this time I can make up my mind once and for all whether I will actually love this book or die from an overload of sugar into my system. Ugh, it's embarrassing: I cry at the same old places and then a few more.

The story is a familiar Bad City, Good Smalltown thingy. Famous actress Cathryn Deen (or Cathyrn Deen depending on what chapter I'm reading, heh) is proud, confident, and somewhat cocky because she's the biggest female star in Hollywood at the moment. Everything goes swimmingly until she's chased by a member of the paparazzi and pulls a Princess Diana on everybody when her car goes up in flames. The photographer takes photos, mind you, of poor Cathy as she's being barbecued. Ms Smith's portrayal of the press and the whole machinery of LA and Hollywood is so vicious to the point of caricature that I find myself thinking, "Oh no, poor Cathy, she's trapped in a place worse than hell: she's in England!" Her husband divorces her even when they've barely extinguished the flames from her body and the media has a field day at her expense. Cathy understandably feels that the world is such a cold and lonely place that perhaps she may as well play Gloomy Sunday in the background and take one pill too many.

In Crossroads, another of the many mountainous smalltowns in that hidden magical corner of America that has better be real because I need a vacation soon, Thomas Mitternich also contemplates shooting himself on a regular basis, and that's when he's sober. He's usually drunk. He lost his wife and young son when they happened to be in the World Trade Center on that September 11. Even more heartbreakingly, Thomas' final communication with them via the cellphone was when Sherryl called him to tell him that she and Ethan were trying to escape. Tried as he might, he couldn't find them in time. Thomas is haunted by his failure as well as by guilt: his marriage wasn't going well until that point; he and Sherryl had an argument that day before he allowed her to take Ethan with her to the World Trade Center.

Crossroads is also the home of Delta, Cathy's aunt of sorts (Cathy is Delta's cousin’s husband’s cousin’s daughter). Delta runs the Crossroads Café which is the center of everything that goes on in Crossroads, kinda like the pub in Cheers where everybody knows your name, and Delta is the queen bee of the place. She's married to the sheriff when she's not at least on speaking terms with everyone else. Thomas is like a stray that she cares for: as much as he wants to roll up and die, she keeps bullying, persuading, and cajoling him to keep living. One day, Delta needs a favor from him. Her niece, Cathy, was in a terrible accident and even if Cathy hasn't contacted her only surviving kin in two decades, Delta is worried that Cathy may need the comfort of a family member. She wants to perhaps send her famous biscuits or something else that will remind Cathy of her home in Crossroads. However, Delta has no idea even how to begin trying to get hold of Cathy. Thomas is from the big city. Surely he knows some people who can help?

As luck would have it, Thomas does know someone who is on the board of directors of the hospital Cathy is admitted to. Calling up the hospital, Thomas pretends to be Cathy's husband Gerald in order to get past the receptionist so that he can pass the call to Delta. However, Thomas catches Cathy just in time for her excruciating debridement session. He ends up comforting her while pretending that he's her husband before introducing her to Delta. As he listens to Cathy trying not to cry during the debridement, he falls in love with her. When he realizes that Cathy is at the verge of committing suicide, he calls her, this time introducing himself as Delta's friend, and manages to persuade/scold/convince her to keep living. Their conversations and letters eventually persuade Cathy to return to Crossroads to find herself. And Thomas and Delta as well, of course.

Despite the potential exploitative nature of Thomas' past, Ms Smith manages to make Thomas such a larger-than-life noble yet flawed hero that I can't help but to feel for him. Likewise, Cathy is a witty heroine who has more depths than people would give her credit for. My heart breaks with hers when she's trying so hard to pull herself together after her accident just as I cheer for her when she decides that it's time she starts living again. Both characters are very well-drawn with their strengths and flaws so vividly portrayed that I feel like I know them as if they are my close friends by the time the story ends. There are certainly larger-than-life qualities to these characters, but their flaws and strengths are nonetheless realistic enough to strike a deep chord in me.

It is the way Ms Smith swiftly gets her hooks into my heart and has me weeping and laughing with her main characters so early in the book that allows me to sit through the incessant clichés and mawkish sentimentalism in this story. Crossroads may as well be a secret paradise on earth because the people are so kind and accepting to that point that nobody in Crossroads cares about the color of your skin or the gender of the person you're sleeping with. Thomas and Cathy will encounter two children in need of love and naturally these two children are special people with talent, with the older one being the suspicious rebel with issues and the younger one having plenty of imaginary friends. I tell you, think-tanks of the world should stop looking at top universities and start combing orphanages and bus depots if they want to find the next big prodigy because I don't think I've ever encountered a kid in this kind of stories that isn't special, talented, and adorable.

This leads to the predictable "Oh No, We Must Keep The Children Together!" custody drama, along with some Hallmark-type climax at the end where Cathy faces all her fears and overcomes them just in time for her to show off her scars and address a grand audience, "If I could choose to be beautiful again, but lose those people - I'd choose to be scarred." Everyone will then give her a standing ovation. Cathy will look across the audience to see that a loved one, who she isn't sure will be there, is standing there watching her with tears in the eyes. You're so special, Cathy! Hear that? That's the choir of angels descending from heaven to personally serenade you with songs about how wonderful you are, how beautiful you are inside and outside! Oh, and Cathy also saves puppies from a villainous meanie and adopt these puppies.

I'm grateful to Ms Smith, though, for not giving Delta leukemia or Alzheimer's disease, but I'm sure some smart aleck will make sure that Delta will die in her sleep at the end of the movie adaptation of this book, leaving behind a handwritten note that says, "Fly, Cathy! Fly like the beautiful angel that you are and show the world the true meaning of beauty and love!" And then, Ashley Judd in the leading role will put her head on Thomas' chest (he will be played by Eric Dane, perhaps) and they will watch as doves take flight in the sunrise while holding the hands of the two kids (played by Dakota Fanning and Katharine McPhee).

And I'd suggest Aaron Sorkin to adapt this book for the small screen because my goodness, there are many instances in this story when Ms Smith gets on her soapbox and doesn't care if she's alienating her readers. Of course, it helps that I agree with her on these matters, heh. However, I have to point out that many of the soapbox moments are within the context of the story. The political soapbox moments which suggest to me that Thomas' favorite documentary is most likely Fahrenheit 9/11, are intimately linked to Thomas' character and his psychological issues of guilt, despair, and confusion in the aftermath of losing his child and wife. His anger is understandable. Likewise, Cathy can really go on about women being led to believe that they have to conform to the standards of beauty imposed on them by society but again, having just seen how cruel people are towards her when she is no longer their symbol of iconic beauty, she should feel that way. Ms Smith is like Aaron Sorkin on a good day in that manner: the soapbox moments could be a little more subtle, perhaps, but they are integral to the character development of Thomas and Cathy so if some readers choose to be offended by them, well, tough.

However, no matter how clichéd and saccharine this book is, no matter how one-dimensional the whole "Townies - bad! Crossroad - good!" premise is, Deborah Smith keeps reeling me back in every time I am close to being repulsed by some particularly mawkish moments. Speaking of mawkish "Oh my god, she didn't write that, oh no she didn't!" moments, the scene of Cathy saving the puppies is this close to being the dealbreaker for me - does it have to be something as clichéd as puppies, of all things? Nonetheless, the humor in this book sparkles. I find myself laughing out loud many times in this book, as many times as I reach for the tissue, actually.

The main reason why I love this book is Ms Smith's way with characters and words. The Crossroads Café is Deborah Smith at her most conventional and mainstream when it comes to the high number of Hallmark movie clichés in the story. I'm even tempted to use the word "sell-out" but that will be a hideous injustice to the characters of Cathy and Thomas. These two characters... sing to me, if I am making any sense here. Their pains feel so real due to Ms Smith's ability to make me share her characters' laughter and tears in the story. She gets me into her characters' head so well that I know their pains, dreams, insecurities, and hopes. It is quite strange, therefore, that Ms Smith has given me her two most memorable characters which resonate with me so much even as she presents me with her most ordinary and mainstream story to date at the same time.

Ms Smith's quiet scenes of Cathy and Thomas are, like the rest of this book, either indelibly haunting and romantic or too mawkish for words.

The cynic in me is horrified that I am giving this book my two thumbs up while the romantic sap in me is still wiping my eyes dry as it urges me to go ahead and do just that. I don't know. The Crossroads Café is simultaneously one of the author's strongest books to date as well as one of her weakest ones. But because I read this book to laugh, cry, experience heartbreak, and heal with the characters and Ms Smith sells such beautiful catharsis in this story, oh, why not. Just this once, I'll concede sweet defeat to Deborah Smith and admit that she's completely sold me with this story. I have a truly wonderful time laughing and crying with the characters even if this is also one of the worst Hallmark scripts I've read, what with all that puppies and special children and all.

But if the next book features three-legged Seabiscuit clones, cute mute little girls, a Dolly Parton soundtrack, and a tornado, all gloves are off and I'm really not going down without a fight!

Rating: 92

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