If Wishes Were Horses

Love in a Small Town

Lost Highways
by Curtiss Ann Matlock
(Mira, $5.99, PG) ISBN 1-55166-499-2
People who have been reading my reviews for a while know that I have an absolutely infallible, completely scientific method for rating books: my pick up/put down system. If I can’t put a book down, it’s a five; if I don’t want to put a book down, it’s a four. Well, Curtiss Ann Matlock’s new release passed the test for a four. I didn’t want to put it down.

Having never read a book by Matlock before (although I have a good number on my to-be-read mountain), I cannot gauge whether the writing style in Lost Highways is a departure, but it is a bit unusual. We spend just about the whole book in the heroine’s point of view. It takes a skilled writer to pull this off, and clearly Matlock is very skilled.

It also takes a strong and interesting protagonist. Matlock has created a memorable heroine in Rainey Valentine of Valentine, Oklahoma.

Rainey is nearly thirty-five, twice divorced and something of a lost soul as the story begins. Her vibrant mother has recently died, leaving Rainey her old truck, trailer and horse. Coweta Valentine had raced barrels in rodeos all over the southwest until she was well into her seventies. She was also the rock on which the Valentine family stood. Rainey, born when her mother was in her mid-forties, was especially close to Coweta.

The shock of her mother’s sudden death forces Rainey to reevaluate her life. She decides to take the truck, the trailer and Lulu and go on the rodeo circuit herself. She’s been gone for over a month, doing better at racing all the time, but still uncertain about herself and her future.

Then, one night while driving down a Texas highway on her way to San Antonio, she almost hits a man staggering on the side of the road. She stops to discover whether she indeed injured him. Thus she meets Harry Furneaux.

Harry’s car had run off the road and the accident had left him somewhat confused. But it turns out that Harry is confused by more than a bump on his head. He has spent his life trying to live up to his family’s expectations, but it isn’t working. Needing to get away, he decides to travel along with Rainey as she visits her uncle and then heads out to a rodeo in Amarillo.

Because we are always in Rainey’s point of view, we slowly uncover Harry’s secrets. He turns out to be from a world far removed from Rainey’s, but a world sadly lacking in warmth. We watch Rainey watch Harry gradually unbend and learn how to have fun and gradually come to terms with what he wants to do with his life. We also watch Rainey’s growing attraction to this handsome, younger (well, three years) man and her distrust of her own (and his) feelings.

Of course, the book revolves around Rainey who is the quintessential giving person who doesn’t begin to realize her own worth. We, like Harry, come to appreciate her wisdom, her generosity, her warmth, her bravery and we understand why it becomes so important for Harry to make her a part of his life. But because of the way Matlock tells the story, we also understand Rainey’s insecurities and her fears.

Matlock knows her setting well, whether it is the physical setting of small town Oklahoma and Texas and the rodeo and state fair of the rural world or the psychological setting of the Valentine and Furneaux families. Her secondary characters, all seen through Rainey’s eyes, come vividly to life.

I think that the only thing that keeps Lost Highways from being a keeper is a certain dissatisfaction with the ending. Somehow, it lost the emotional intensity of the rest of the story and Rainey’s behavior seemed just a tad too “conventional” for such a complex and interesting character.

Still, there is no doubt that Lost Highways kept me turning the pages. Matlock took me to a world that is as unfamiliar to me as the mysterious Orient and made it come alive. She introduced me to a woman I came to admire and like. And she made it all end happily. Can’t ask for much more.

--Jean Mason

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