When reflecting upon the best way to characterize Curtiss Ann Matlock's writing style, I think of sultry summer afternoons eating watermelon on the back porch or lazy hours spent reading in a hammock under a canopy of trees. The sense of tranquility that pervades her stories is the perfect antidote to my frenetic Southern California lifestyle. Sort of a tranquilizer for the soul between the covers of a book.
In Cold Tea on a Hot Day we return once more to Valentine, Oklahoma, the setting of Matlock's last two books, Driving Lessons and Lost Highways. Although all are set in the same small town, it's not necessary to have read the other books, you can jump right in here.
While the primary characters are different, the secondary characters we've come to know are back. Elderly Winston Valentine is still waging his daily flag raising competition with his neighbor Everett Northrupt and the local drugstore is still the local gathering and gossip stop. But over at the local newspaper, The Valentine Voice, things are changing. A new editor and publisher, Tate Holloway, will be arriving from Houston anyday and, in the meantime, reporter Marilee James is filling in.
Marilee has her hands full with co-workers speculating over the security of their jobs, the constant worry as a single parent to her special-needs son, eight-year-old Willie Lee, and taking care of her eleven-year-old niece Corrine. Corrine has essentially been abandoned by Marilee's irresponsible sister Anita, who would much rather drink and party than take care of her sad and serious daughter. There's also Willie Lee's dog Munro who is given a personality and point of view of his own. Incredible as it may seem, the fiercely protective Munro is my favorite character in the book.
All of this responsibility has had a negative effect on Marilee's long term relationship with local veterinarian, Parker Lindsey. Marilee and Parker are "almost engaged" but it's Marilee's reticence that has kept the pair from making an "official" announcement. And Marilee is forced to question their relationship even further when fifty-year-old Tate Holloway rides into town in his sporty yellow BMW convertible.
Tate makes no secret about his interest in the forty-year-old divorcee, even if she is "almost engaged." Tate, who's described as being able to "charm the spots off a bobcat," totally overwhelms Marilee and she retreats to the safer, if somewhat dull, arms of Parker.
Now I know some readers will have problems with a hero who's intentions are essentially to steal the heroine from another man. While I'm a bit more willing to go along for the ride, so to speak, there were times when even I found Tate a bit difficult to like. He's arrogant in his belief that he's the perfect person for Marilee, but when he does the right thing and steps aside so she can plan her wedding to Parker, there was no question in my mind that Marilee was making a big mistake.
Marilee is a character who will resonate with many women. She is so busy taking care of other people's needs, she's forgotten how to take care of her own. It's Tate who recognizes this immediately and sets it upon himself to remind her to take time to enjoy the little things, like a pitcher of cold, sweet tea on a hot summer day.
Although Tate can come across as a bit too sure he knows what's best for everyone, his vulnerability is delightfully apparent in a series of morning jogging scenes. Tate has decided to keep fit by jogging through town every morning. While on the grueling uphill portion of his run, he has a daily encounter with his younger rival, Parker, who's jogging downhill in the opposite direction. Tate's hilarious and oh, so male, attempts to appear fit and un-winded are endearing.
While the relationship between Tate and Marilee is focal point of the book, it's really Marilee's life as a mom, sister, daughter and aunt that dominates the story. The secondary characters are equally important and comprise a large portion of the book, making Cold Tea on a Hot Day less of a romance and more the story of one woman's life.
Curtiss Ann Matlock's greatest strength is taking an slice of everyday life and exposing the beauty hidden within. The pacing is slow as molasses and as soft and caressing as a warm summer breeze, with simple plots as rich as the chocolate brownie sundaes Marilee craves when life becomes too much to handle. I enjoy every moment I spend reading her books. While Cold Tea on a Hot Day is typical of her style, it's not quite as wonderful as my personal favorite, Love in a Small Town. Which is not only one of my favorite romances, it's also one of my favorite books, period.
If you've not experienced Curtiss Ann Matlock, take my advice and add any of her books to your To-Be-Read pile. You'll be glad you did.