In a lot of ways, the book is a very familiar and almost typical setup: Molly Jennings, a big city girl with a secret, returns home to small mountain town, surrounded by old friends and familiar parental figures. Actual parents optional, some assembly required. Ben Lawson, the sheriff, has lived in Tumble Creek his whole life and has little patience for her secrets, or for his attraction to her. Sound familiar? I could name a few books that follow the plotline, especially the heavy mountain snows = oh noes, we’re snowed in—let’s break out the mulled cider and sex, eh?
However! Be ye not bored or dismissive! Victoria Dahl maneuvers that familiar pattern into a savvy contemporary with spice and style, batteries definitely included. Oh, how they are included.
Let’s try that description again, this time with Dahl-ripples: Molly Jenkins is an epubbed erotic fiction author who moves back to her home town after a breakup that went on way too long, thanks to her ex’s manipulating, overbearing behavior. Her career, her pen name, and that entire side of her life are a secret from everyone, including her parents. Ben Lawson lived through a deeply embarrassing scandal as a teen, and abhors secrets. He knows she has one. He knows she’s not telling. Despite the degree to which that drives him batty, he can’t stay away from her.
First, there’s the dialogue, the humor, the comedy, and the lightheartedness, along with the genuine awesome that is the pair of protagonists. Both the heroine and the hero are charming and marvelous. I loved the fact that Molly Jenkins is unabashed and unapologetic about her sexuality. She’s happy to be turned on, and to turn other people on as well. More power to her.
And yet, she’s not full of bravado, nor does she demand that everyone adopt her view: she’s not ashamed of her job or her skills as a writer, but she knows it would embarrass her parents and her family, not to mention cause undue gossip about her personally, so she keeps her pseudonym and her career a secret. I admired her spunky charm and her determination to be herself and live her life while remaining mindful of other people’s boundaries and expectations. Molly is a realistic combo of tough and tender: she’s happy to get attention personally, and dresses with a style designed to attract the attention of one particular person, but she wants that attention on her own terms, not based on someone else’s conjecture as to her morality. After all, if she writes dirty books she must be a ho, right? (Of course not.)
And oh, did I love the hero. Love love love. Ben is, as I mentioned, the town sheriff, and a long-past scandal keeps him living a very quiet, straight and narrow life with few risks and fewer passions. He has hidden artistic talents, and comes across initially as a character who one would think doesn’t give a crap what you think about him. But yet, he very, very much wants to avoid undue attention. Ben is happy to not be noticed, but when he notices Molly again, and their past interactions heat up in the present, he’s as much unsettled by the fact that he can’t keep his eyes off her as he is by the fact that everyone around him has noticed his attraction. And the two of them together are impossible to ignore.
While casting Ben as law enforcement lent a somewhat tired and overused quick-dash of nobility to his character, Dahl doesn’t rest on the easy way out. Molly’s ex is in law enforcement as well, in a very high-profile position, and the degree to which he abuses his authority makes him a foil for Ben, and a complete douchebag besides. The ex isn’t the only antagonist, either. As with any small town, there’s nebby old dudes and gossip, secrets and old scandals, and additional shady characters galore. But there’s also the beginnings of true friendships for Molly and a sense that neither character operates in a vacuum.
But even though there is an established community in Tumble Creek, there are characters who we are told are important figures, but we never see them. The degree to which her family didn’t appreciate or even notice her was an underdeveloped portion of backstory and her personality. While I think it was complimentary to her character that she’d consider their feelings about her somewhat off-beat career and the ramifications thereof, the fact that they weren’t such a presence in her life growing up, or even now, made me wonder why she bothered to worry about them so much in the first place. Their role as damaging or encouraging factors in her life was underdeveloped and could have been stronger.
The subplot of stalking and harassment went on a bit too long – and I’d guessed the solution before it was revealed – but the joy of their relationship overshadowed the frustration I had in figuring out whodunit. One note: if you’re going to set a novel in a small town, you’re already working with a small cast of characters to begin with. The limited cast can be cumbersome because it’s increasingly easy to figure out whodunit.
What I enjoyed most about the book, however, aside from the simple and enjoyable pleasure of watching two confident, likable people act on their attraction – in some hilarious scenes, I might add – is that the plot examined and played with themes of identification in each character. Who can see and appreciate the “real you,” and who truly knows you, down to the last shameful secret? Dahl’s writing gets busy evaluating and examining relationships and personal history for each of the characters, exploring the significance of seeing (or not seeing) through the bullshit other people throw in front of themselves to hide behind. Within that exploration of identity and artifice is a hero and a heroine who face down past demons (figurative, not literal) and move past shame to decide to be happy.
Furthermore, I’m floored at the idea that RT would label Molly a “dog in heat.” This, folks, is realistic sex. Gritty sex. Passionate pent-up sex. And most of all? FUN sex. How long has it been since sex was comic and passionate simultaneously in a contemporary romance? It’s emotional, erotic, and often hilariously funny. And the heroine knows what she wants, knows what turns her on, and has spent pages upon pages exploring those turn-ons in fiction – and hello, Molly, she has the chance to act those fantasies out with the object of her desire, fantasy, and passion. This heroine, in short, is a grown up, with adult passions. So is Ben. There is no shame in being horny, or in being happy.
Dahl takes a handful of familiar setups and molds them into something new, something that’s adult, witty, smart, and utterly fun. I’m looking forward to the next contemporary offering from this author, because what she does, she does laugh-out-loud excellent.