Anyone But You

The Cinderella Deal

Crazy for You

Tell Me Lies

Trust Me On This

Welcome to Temptation
by Jennifer Crusie
(St. Martin's, $24.95, NC-17) ISBN 0-312-25294-3
No doubt a lot of readers and reviewers will focus on the fact that Welcome to Temptation features sex scenes that are hotter and steamier than New Orleans in July. Hopefully, as they are hosing themselves down, these same readers and reviewers will also notice that Temptation is Jennifer Crusie's best novel to date.

Remember that lovable con man, Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man? Steady Marian the Librarian didn't stand a chance. Well, the genders are reversed here, but the theme is similar. Sophie and Amy Dempsey come from a long line of infamous con artists. Their father is currently on the lam. Their brother Davy is somewhere about, "defrauding people who defraud other people" out of their money. Amy and Sophie run a fairly legitimate video business, but they can't help what's in their blood. And once they arrive in Temptation, Ohio, that Dempsey blood stirs up a whole lot of trouble.

The reason for Sophie and Amy's brief sojourn to conservative Temptation ("We Believe in Family Values," reads the welcome sign) is Clea, Davy's ex-girlfriend and sultry B-movie queen. She has hired the Dempsey girls to shoot her comeback video at her old family farmhouse. She's even invited her high school sweetheart Frank to play a role in the video, along with Frank's handsome son Rob. Young, irresponsible Amy, hasn't quite told her bigger, more conscientious sister the truth about the video's topic. Let's just say that the recently-passed Temptation ordinance on pornography is about to get a major workout.

Meanwhile, Mayor Phineas Tucker is only slightly concerned by the prospect of facing Pillar of the Community Stephen Garvey in the upcoming election. After all, four generations of Phineas Tuckers have served as mayor. The citizens of Temptation haven't had much to complain about during his administration. In fact, the biggest source of conflict at the recent City Council meetings has been whether or not to buy new streetlights. And Phin's biggest personal source of conflict is his matronly mother, who rules Phin and his daughter Dillie with an iron fist and plants not very subtle hints that Phin should marry the young (and hopefully fertile) City Council secretary.

When Phin and Sophie first meet, the attraction is immediate, but so is the mistrust. Then things start getting really wild when Clea's ex-husband, an arrogant television newscaster, arrives in Temptation to re-claim Clea. Suddenly Temptation is full of shocking sexual liaisons, exposed secrets, financial sleight of hand, and even a murder. Standing watch over all of the chaos is the infamous Temptation water tower, which starts out looking like a giant penis and ends up looking like.well, you have to read the book to find out.

Welcome to Temptation has so much going for it that it's hard to know where to start. (Don't worry, we'll get to the sex, but other things are important too, you know.) The novel is better structured than either of Crusie's first two novels, Tell Me Lies and Crazy For You. The plot starts slowly and builds to a rousing, hilarious, even surprising finale. There's a mystery, several romances, and some interesting shifting family dynamics.

The characters are quirky but, for the most part, memorable. Sophie is smart, capable and loyal to her deranged siblings. She's always been an outsider, but she's never felt sorry for herself. She's more than a match for high-class town boy Phin, who needs to have his secure little life shaken up a bit. Crusie has always developed such strong secondary characters, even in her category romances, that readers constantly clamor for sequels or spin-offs. As far as I know, she's never complied with these requests, but certainly Davy Dempsey would be a prime candidate. There are other standout characters, including con-artist-in-training Dillie Tucker and Leo Kingsley, a surprisingly neurotic porn king. And of course there's an ugly but lovable dog, although he doesn't serve much purpose in the story.

Crusie's writing is maturing as well. She doesn't simply write witty one-liners anymore, she writes fully-realized scenes in which the humor is often contextual and character-driven. Of course there are still plenty of memorable zingers (When asked why she is dating her ex-therapist, Sophie replies, "It saved a lot of time. You don't know what a relief it was not to have to explain the family to him").

Okay, now about that sex. Well, there's plenty of it, it's often kinky and it's about as explicit as you can get. It's definitely not for the easily offended -- ditto for the novel's colorful language. I give Crusie credit for creating sex scenes that are funny, imaginative and even realistic in that every encounter is not perfect. She lets Sophie be a genuine sexual being with fantasies and an appetite for the sex itself, not just the romance.

I do have one minor quibble. Why is a conservative small town in Ohio named Temptation anyway? Crusie never provides any rationale for the strange moniker, leaving me to believe it's there solely for the purpose of providing the book with an intriguing title.

If you like a Celine Dion type romance featuring polished and immaculate true love, you might want to think twice about Welcome to Temptation. Like Sophie's favorite singer, Dusty Springfield, the novel is earthy and raw, without the glossy coating, but truly satisfying. "Nothing but good times ahead," Sophie is fond of saying. That's what I predict for readers everywhere as long as Crusie continues to produce these rollicking good books.

--Susan Scribner

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