Donna Kauffman’s first trade-size paperback may look like Chick Lit fiction, but like the wolf on the cover masquerading as a sheep, looks can be deceiving. The Big Bad Wolf Tells All is really a contemporary romance novel with Chick Lit packaging. And hooray for that. Eschewing the paranormal elements of her single title romance novels and the steamy sex of her Blaze categories, Kauffman creates a charming love story that captures perfectly the wonder of two independent people who realize they’ve finally found their soul mates. No big misunderstandings, no scandalous secrets, no “she’s too good for me” nobility - just the gradual development of a relationship filled with humor, passion and communication.
The Chick Lit trappings are most obvious in the heroine’s introduction. We meet Tanzy Harrington, a writer whose “Sex and the City” type columns have all of San Francisco buzzing, as she chats with her girlfriends at a charity bowling event. Tanzy is the last single woman in the group and proud of it, a confirmed bad boy addict who sees no benefits to limiting herself to boring marital sex. Talking to her newly married friends gives her lots of fodder for her column - and thus is born the dichotomy between Wolves and Sheep. Tanzy can’t understand why women settle for dependable, responsible Sheep guys when they could be having fabulous Wolf sex instead. She would rather have a nooner with an alpha Wolf than be forced to compromise who she is and what she wants in order to have a long-term relationship with a Sheep.
When Tanzy takes up temporary residence in the home of her wealthy Great-Aunt Millicent, she has the opportunity to confirm her theory. Aunt Millicent’s new assistant, Riley Parrish, appears to be the “Sheepmaster” with his generic looks, thick glasses and stilted conversation. Again, though, looks are deceiving. Riley has been hired by Millicent to protect her niece and uncover the identity of the person who is sending Tanzy a series of disturbing e-mails. A former NFL cornerback, Riley has adopted his Sheep disguise to keep Tanzy at a distance and to help him maintain his objectivity. But it’s impossible to constantly sustain the façade, and Tanzy keeps catching tantalizing sneak peeks of the real Riley. Surprisingly, Tanzy finds herself attracted to Riley’s more sensitive features as well. Maybe having someone around with mutton-type qualities isn’t such a bad prospect. But when Tanzy’s stalker finally makes a move, will it be Riley the Sheep or Riley the Wolf who comes to the rescue?
It’s really a matter of semantics, I guess, whether you consider Big Bad Wolf a Chick Lit book or not, but in my experience Chick Lit books are a bit more hip and cool than this novel. They may include a relationship for the heroine, but it’s only one of several subplots and it’s usually tinged with a touch of cynicism. The Big Bad Wolf Tells All, however, is unabashedly romantic. The delightful hero and heroine are surprised to find that they are vulnerable to genuine emotions, but they don’t fight the feeling for long or create artificial barriers because they’ve been hurt in the past. They talk openly and don’t keep secrets from each other. Even Riley’s revelation about his true identity is handled without anger and recrimination. Without those forced conflicts, Tanzy and Riley are free to slowly fall in love and revel in the experience, taking the reader along for the ride and reminding us why we read romance novels. Even without the emotional baggage, the hero and heroine learn and grow from their experience. Tanzy learns she can maintain her independence but still lean on someone, and Riley learns that he can fulfill obligations without losing himself in the process.
The novel isn’t without its flaws. The suspense subplot is underdeveloped, and the climax leaves several questions unanswered. Kauffman’s writing skills still haven’t quite caught up with her creativity and enthusiasm, although they’ve definitely improved in the three years that I’ve been reviewing her work. She has a frustrating habit of using the same expression over and over ad nauseum; both Tanzy and Riley are prone to saying “damn if…” every few pages: “Damn if he didn’t understand exactly why men threw themselves willingly under those spike heels of hers...” “Damn if the man didn’t have a chest under those suits...” “Damn if those roughly spoken words hadn’t done her in…” etc. The novel included enough “damns” to keep a colony of beavers busy for the next hundred years!
But damn if I didn’t enjoy myself anyway. It’s obvious that Donna Kauffman believes in love, and in its power to make us better people. That may be too corny for a Chick Lit book but it made The Big Bad Wolf Tells All a memorable romance.