Remember the story about the poor little rich girl who ran away from home to see if she could make it in the real world? Remember how much you enjoyed her trials, tribulations, and eventual triumph? Well, Patricia Coughlin has retold that story in The Cupcake Queen, and it’s just as much fun as the first time you encountered it.
Olivia Ashfield is the 21st century, American version of a pampered princess. Her father owns a mega-corporation that deals in information, and her mother’s family owns a company that might be Entenmann’s. Olivia is 24, and she has already discovered that she is not “destined to work with young children or stay cooped up in an office all day or work around chemicals, especially those of a combustible nature.” Olivia’s weapon of choice is her beauty, and she has learned how to “wield it with finesse.” Despite that, she has yet to find a man she wants to spend a weekend with, much less a lifetime.
Olivia has four older brothers. Her brother, Brad, overhears her telling her dance partner that she wishes she could run away and live an ordinary life, somewhere where no one knows she is an heiress and she would be treated just like everybody else. Brad immediately challenges her to do just that - to run away, taking only one suitcase - and earn her living on her own for eight weeks. The destination they settle on, by throwing darts at a map, is Danby, population 14,000, in upstate New York.
Olivia proves to be a one-woman disaster for Danby. First, she finds a job as a waitress in a diner, but that doesn’t last. When one of the guys she is serving pinches her butt, she dumps half a pot of coffee on him. That ends her career as a waitress. Next she talks the local veterinarian into hiring her as a receptionist. She manages to get through one whole day on the job, but on the second day she lets one of the patients escape - a cat - and when she tries to chase the cat down, she knocks over one of the vet’s beehives. The bees swarm and sting a local dog trainer’s assistant badly enough to send him to the hospital, leaving Owen Rancourt without an assistant.
Owen Rancourt is a dog trainer extraordinaire. He trains dogs, and their owners, to do search and rescue. Autumn is coming, and with the fall, the dog training season. He needs someone to help get his camp ready for his first class of the season. Olivia is definitely unemployed and, in Danby, unemployable, so Owen makes her an offer. The offer is influenced by Olivia’s looks: “glossy, full-colored, air-brushed, magazine-cover beautiful.” However, even though he is attracted to Olivia, Owen understands that she is bored by men who fall at her feet and that to do so will put “Paid” to any chance he might have of attracting her.
When Olivia unwillingly takes Owen up on his job offer, the stage is set for a charming and humorous battle of wills. Even though this particular battle has been waged before, going back at least to Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” Ms. Coughlin introduces enough original elements to keep an old story fresh. One sub-plot I particularly enjoyed was that of Olivia’s relationship with Radar, Mac Cool, Jezebel and, eventually, Romeo. At first Olivia is wary of Owen’s four search and rescue dogs - they are quite large - but the gradual growth of her rapport with them…and theirs with her…adds an appealing thread to a thoroughly enjoyable story.
I have books I call comfort reading. When I’ve had One of Those Days - when I’ve been persecuted at work or my nose has started running or the nine-year-old has been particularly stubborn - I want to read something that will slide down painlessly and leave me cheered up. The Cupcake Queen is comfort reading.
--Nancy J. Silberstein