Rita Stark, divorced with a grown daughter, found herself the owner of a rundown restaurant called the Pig Rib Palace when her ex-husband Pernel decided he preferred brassieres to barbecue (wearing them, that is). In the several years since their split, Pernel has devoted his life to acquiring a classy wardrobe and a matching set of falsies. Rita, feeling fat, frumpy, and depressed, has hidden herself away in the apartment above the restaurant, much to the concern of her friends Cozie and Jilly.
Jilly decides to shake up Rita’s life by inviting her bad-boy brother, Will “Wild Billy” West, back to town. Will is now a custom carpenter and carrying some painful baggage, but he has a soft spot for Rita, though she doesn’t know it. Hopefully he can convince Rita to let him renovate the restaurant, and Jilly can nudge the two of them together for a fling, at least. Rita decides to dust off her old beauty-queen tiara and have a little fun. Neither of them plan on falling in love.
Wisecracks abound in this novel, but it feels curiously hollow. The overwhelming message Rita presents is “in order to get a life, I have to get a man, even a temporary one” a notion that her round-heeled friend Jilly does nothing to correct. Sure, Will is a yummy hero and it’s amusing watching Rita begin to take charge of her life, but the novel would have been stronger if she’d decided to do it solo, at least for a while. As it is, with Jilly nagging and nudging her along on the road to love (or at least sex), Rita comes across as spineless and helpless. When she finally does decide to rediscover her spine and kick a little butt, it’s long overdue.
The strongest secondary character is Jilly’s mother, Miss Peggy, a woman who has no illusions about her daughter and delivers several well-placed verbal kicks to Jilly’s rear - and Rita’s. This delightful lady would have been a fun lead character on her own. And why is it that Rita would take advice on men from a friend who, though a trust fund princess, is about one step above the level of “town tramp”? Jilly apparently has had so many men in her bed that the notches likely wore right through the bedpost.
I struggled with the chronology of the story, too. Rita got pregnant at eighteen or so and had to marry Pernel, and according to the introduction (cleverly written in Pernel’s point of view), that was about eighteen years ago, putting Rita in her mid-thirties. But Jilly refers to her as “fifty-something”. Maybe this stuff got fixed in the final version, not that romance readers wouldn’t welcome an older heroine now and then.
The writing is snappy, and if you buy into the Southern-beauty-queen mentality, it’s likely to be an entertaining read. Readers like me, who don't "get" the beauty-queen thing and rarely worry about whether her bag matches her shoes, may find they've forgotten The Dixie Belle’s Guide to Love by next week.