Cimarron Rose by Nicole Foster
(Harl. Historical #560, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-373-29160-4
Competently, if somewhat mechanically written, Cimarron Rose never truly captured my imagination, although there were moments I thought it might break through. Since “Nicole Foster” is openly a pseudonym for two people, I can’t help wondering if the lack of spontaneity might be one of the pitfalls of the team approach to writing.

Katlyn McLain is the daughter of famed singer Penelope Rose, also known as the St. Louis Songbird. Katlyn’s father disappeared before she was born, but her mother has supported them quite successfully with her career singing on the riverboats. They’ve left St. Louis for the rugged New Mexico Territory, however, lured by the offer of a lucrative job entertaining at the St. Martin Hotel in Cimarron.

Unfortunately, during the journey they are trapped by bad weather, robbed of all their money and forced to complete the trip on foot. Penelope’s health is destroyed as a result. Not only is she too ill to sing, but if she isn’t hospitalized she will lose her eyesight and possibly die.

In spite of the dire threat to her life, Penelope’s only concern is hiding her illness. To accomplish this - and earn the money they need for her treatment - she insists that Katlyn, who has never performed in her life, take her place on stage. Katlyn, who has led a rather aimless life in the vivacious Penelope's shadow, is deeply moved that her mother needs her and agrees.

Case Durham owns the St. Martin Hotel. Long a hangout for “renegades, gamblers and assorted desperadoes,” Case wants to turn the frontier hotel into a nice place for decent folks and make a safe new home for himself and his six-year-old daughter. He’s sunk all of his money into it, but things are improving too slowly and his survival depends on the fabulous St. Louis Songbird pulling in the customers and turning his fortunes around.

In spite of the implausibilities, I was not surprised to discover that the authors of this book are journalists; structurally the book unfolded methodically as though every step had been carefully planned. Maybe too carefully planned. All the right elements for a romance are there, but the sparkle and originality that lift a story off the page are missing.

For example, I kept feeling as though most of the authors’ research had been done watching old cowboy movies. Although I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing (I’m one of those readers who likes history as “wallpaper”), it did mean that many of the situations and the secondary characters had a certain “stock” feel to them. It didn’t make it feel unique.

I also thought there was too much nonverbal communication between Katlyn and Case. While all those speaking looks are lovely for the characters, for the reader it means too much narrative in which the authors describe to us what the hero and heroine are thinking and feeling rather than letting it play out, much more engagingly, in words and actions.

A Katlyn with foibles or the odd flash of temper would have added zest, but she was too perfect, too good to be true. Early on we’re told that she spent her childhood as a lonely outsider on the riverboats, and that “Penelope had never taught her anything about cooking or sewing or keeping a house.” At the hotel, however, she cleans and redecorates everything in sight, teaches the cook how to prepare and garnish fancy meals, figures out how to save Case’s failing business, and transforms the saloon into a fantasy garden for a little girl’s birthday party with bits of ribbon and paper. That’s in between rehearsals and her crowd-pleasing performances. At one point I found myself wondering why she didn’t just spin straw into gold and have done with it.

It must be said, however, that, there were some truly touching moments. At times, Katlyn’s sense of herself as an outsider and her longing to belong to a family of her own are almost painful to read. A little more of that kind of honesty and creativity would be welcome. A lot more could be spectacular.

Can two authors create one scintillating voice? Not this time, I’m afraid.

--Judi McKee

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