Lip Lock

 
Ex, Why and Me by Susanna Carr
(Brava, $14, PG-13) ISBN 0-7852-1083-3
***
I've always thought horseradish the most piquant of root vegetables, but I never would have guessed it was an aphrodisiac. Now here comes a book that says otherwise. It is engaging and entertaining but, unlike the condiment, not the spiciest thing around.

Five years ago, Michelle Nelson was crowned Horseradish Queen at her hometown's annual Horseradish Festival. That evening also saw the disastrous beginning of her sex life. She finally lost her virginity to Ryan Slater, the man she had pinned for throughout her high school years. It would have been a great experience if it hadn't ended much, much sooner than desired. Michelle left town to study cooking as planned. Despite big expectations from everyone, she is still only a pastry cook in Chicago and sadly single to boot.

The town is now hoping to rake up more interest in the festival and more tourist bucks for the area. Friends and family ask Michelle to judge a horseradish recipe competition and to join in a scavenger hunt that follows in the footsteps of the local Bonnie and Clyde. She agrees to compete for the "sexiest couple" prize, but only if her brother finds her a partner.

Of course, Michelle never expected him to come up with Ryan. The latter has always regretted his poor performance and can't wait to prove himself to the girl who got away. Needless to say, the hunt gives them ample opportunity to get to know each other.

Ryan and Michelle are refreshing and likeable. Though he hasn't gone far in life, his laidback style is quite charming. Michelle is intelligent and ambitious, if somewhat insecure. Despite their mistakes and failures, neither are into that self-flagellating routine many romance heroes and heroines prefer. No guilty secrets or angst-ridden consciences for this couple.

Which doesn't mean they don't have hang-ups. As their rather low- keyed life suggests, neither has lived up to his or her full potential. Ryan helps out at his parents' bowling alley, underplaying his obvious artistic talents. Michelle is much more zealous, but she does have a hard time maintaining her interest and enthusiasm once the initial thrill is over. Hence her failed cooking career and her disappointing love life.

The scavenger hunt forces them to face their fears, to reconsider their life paths and to see how well their different styles complement each other. The different challenges are interesting without being outrageous. They pace the book and punctuate the characters' arc. The activities also introduce a variety of small town characters, some of whom are more entertaining than others.

The chemistry between Michelle and Ryan works well. There's enough conflict to keep the tension going, but they aren't continually beating a dead horse. The sex scenes aren't as racy as I expected, given both Carr's wicked woman reputation and the Brava imprint. The writing is tight and snappy, but not as sparkly as I'd hoped for. But if Ex, Why, and Me isn't exactly what the nutritionist prescribed, all in all it is a pleasant and light-hearted read.

--Mary Benn


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