At the Corner of Love & Heartache

Cold Tea on a Hot Day

Driving Lessons

If Wishes Were Horses

Lost Highways

Love in a Small Town

Miracle on I-40

Sweet Dreams at the
Goodnight Motel

Chin Up, Honey
by Curtiss Ann Matlock
(MIRA, $13.95, PG) ISBN 978-0-7783-25584
Curtiss Ann Matlock's return to folksy Valentine, Oklahoma is one big snooze-fest. From the dull, rather whiny heroine to the bewildered hero to the indifferent conflict, it was hard to keep reading. Much as I've loved some of Ms. Matlock's previous books, this one was just plain boring.

Emma Berry and her husband, John Cole Berry, are recently separated after thirty-two years of marriage. Emma can't really say what went wrong, other than John Cole seems to work too hard and she's tired of being a housewife. They don't communicate. Emma doesn't offer the reader any evidence that she's actually, you know, attempted to communicate with her husband, so it's hard to muster up anything but a vague sense of impatience with her. On top of it, their only son, John Ray (because all men in small town America go by two names) has gotten engaged to a sweet girl named Gracie who hails from Baltimore. Emma decides she needs to plan the wedding, and therefore, she wants John Cole to move back home and act like everything is normal.

John Cole is only too happy to oblige, because he's not sure what happened to their marriage, either. He only knows that he misses his wife. Meanwhile, Gracie's boutique-owning mother is none too happy that her only daughter has gotten engaged to a small-town hick from some godforsaken burg in Oklahoma, of all places, and decides to do something about it. Her secret weapon? Finally informing Gracie that her heretofore-unknown father is a black Creole artist, and Gracie is the product of a quick romance in Paris years before.

Running through the story is lots of down-home commentary by Winston, a 90-year-old radio show host on the local station. Mix in a cast of locals, including a somewhat ditzy best friend of Emma's, and you have the recipe for another Valentine story. This one, however, failed to charm in just about all respects.

I never warmed up to Emma. For a woman who's been married for 32 years, she's remarkably lacking in any kind of introspection about herself and her husband. Her focus seems to have been on her child, John Ray, to the exclusion of building any deep relationship with John Cole. It's hard to have much sympathy for a woman who doted on her child and relegated her husband to second fiddle, then can't figure out why her marriage seems empty once the kid has grown up. Instead, Emma whines a lot about how she's tired of cookin' and cleanin' for John Cole, but she won't sit down and talk to him (or have a conversation with herself, for that matter).

John Cole, frankly, has put up with too much - or maybe too little - from Emma for too long. He's portrayed as a bewildered man whose comfy, if dull, world was turned upside down and he doesn't like the change, not one bit. The author tries hard to sell John Cole as a man who is desperately in love with his wife and wants her back, but I never understood just what it was that he loved so much. Maybe it was all that cookin' and cleanin.' Even when he moves back home, Emma's focus is on planning her son's wedding, not rebuilding her marriage. And why does Emma decide she should be the one to arrange the wedding, anyway This isn't addressed - she just barges in and takes over.) The romance between John Cole and Emma felt like two strangers who decide to be married to one another and manage to find some common ground along the way.

The romance between John Ray and Gracie is more interesting, as they sort out their problems and plan for a future together. Gracie's scheming mother turns up to add a few welcome sparks to the story, and the wedding issue has a few twists before it is resolved.

Ms. Matlock employed a head-hopping style that just did not work for me. The point of view jumped from one person to the next in one line, and quite often, the new point of view was from a person who wasn't even in that scene, which made for a jarring shift and a confusing read.

Overall, Chin Up, Honey was a big disappointment. Diehard fans of the Valentine books might like this one, but unless you fall into that category, I can't recommend it.

--Cathy Sova

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