Sometime in the last century…O.K., about four years ago…I reviewed one of Christina Dodd’s ‘historical’ romances. I liked its fairy-tale feel - hence the quotation marks around the word, historical - but the story dragged. It felt as though it had been jammed uncomfortably into an already existing world, with far too many references to prior novels. I am happy to say that this is not the case with Just the Way You Are. It has the same fairy-tale flair, but it never drags, in part because it is Dodd’s first contemporary romance, so it must stand alone, on its own charming feet.
In this fairy tale, our Prince Not-So-Charming, Zachariah Givens, is the president and CEO of Givens Enterprises. Zack is in his 30’s, with a “stubborn jaw, aristocratic nose, high cheekbones, broad forehead,” and more money than any one person needs. He is also “cold, dispassionate, detached,” and a technophobe. He has never touched a computer, and he won’t use an answering machine. That’s why, when his secretary goes on vacation, she hires the last existing answering service in the city of Boston to take his calls.
Our Cinderella is Hope Prescott. Instead of sitting in the cinders, Hope is sitting at the switchboard at Madame Nainci’s answering service, taking calls and relaying them to the service’s customers. Hope is studying computer science at a community college so that eventually she can get a good job that pays well and will allow her to look for her siblings. In the meantime, she is very, very poor but also very, very friendly, outgoing, and compassionate. She not only takes messages for Madame Nainci’s customers, she worries about their health, rejoices in their successes, and generally gets involved in their lives.
The first time Zack talks to her, he is intrigued by Hope’s husky voice. She, in turn, decides that Zack is actually his own butler, Mr. Griswald, based on his “crisp Boston intonation.” Their acquaintance is limited to telephone conversations…conversations longer than the minimum needed for Zack to get his messages…until Zack comes down with a miserable cold. He deals with it by frightening his temporary secretary so badly she quits, thus earning a lecture from Hope. Once home, he gives his butler - the real Mr. Griswald - the night off so that he can spend some time thinking about whether he is starting to turn into his rigidly conservative father. Consequently, when Hope unexpectedly brings him chicken soup, he does something most unusual: he opens his own front door. Predictably, romance blooms, and blooms delightfully if, on Zack’s part, deceitfully.
If Just The Way You Are were a realistic novel, Hope would uncover Zack’s deception quickly. Goodness knows, the clues are numerous and obvious and come from all sorts of sources. But this isn’t a realistic novel, so she remains happily deceived for a long, long time. Of course, if this were a realistic novel, two such different people would quickly drive each other crazy, and Zack would be unable to change his world-view so easily and so fundamentally. But this is a fairy tale, and wonderful, inexplicable things happen in fairy tales.
Just The Way You Are has a minor sub-plot that is apparently there to supply a speed bump on Hope and Zack’s road to happiness. Unfortunately, this speed bump is entirely too high, too rough, and at odds with the tone of the rest of the narrative. Fortunately, it only interrupts the romance briefly before the story resumes on a lighter note.
There seems to be a recent trend for writers of historical romances to branch out into contemporary romance - Mary Jo Putney and Joan Wolf come immediately to mind. In my estimation, Christina Dodd makes the transition more smoothly than either of these two and produces a frothy and entertaining story first time out of the gate. A word of warning, however: Just the Way You Are ends with several unresolved plot elements; there will obviously be sequels. Let’s hope that they don’t get as interconnected as Ms. Dodd’s historicals.
--Nancy J. Silberstein