|Curtiss Ann Matlock enters the trade paperback market with a romance that’s more of an ensemble piece, set in the small Oklahoma town of Valentine where her past four books have taken place. This story of a group of people who are linked by a motel is sweet and poignant, with characterizations of a depth and warmth not often seen in contemporary romance. The lack of any strong romance may disappoint readers looking for a love story, however.
Claire Wilder, divorced from her high-school sweetheart, Andrew, decides to take a vacation in Valentine, Oklahoma and try to discover whatever became of her father. Andrew is about to marry a much younger woman, and Claire decides she’s wasted too much of her life hoping he’ll come back. A visit to her father’s hometown will set her on a new path, she hopes.
To Claire’s surprise and confusion, Andrew stops her on her way out of town with the news that the wedding is off and he’s having second thoughts. Claire isn’t ready to drop her newfound dreams of independence, and tells Andrew they can talk when she returns. Upon her arrival in Valentine, Claire checks into the slightly-rundown Goodnight Motel. There her life will cross paths with a number of people, and things will never be the same for Claire.
There’s Sherrilyn, a scared, pregnant teenager whose life collides with Claire when her worthless boyfriend steals Claire’s car and abandons Sherrilyn at the motel. Sherrilyn tries to kill herself by holding her head underwater, but all this does is land her in the psychiatric ward of the hospital. Against her will, Claire is drawn to the young woman and soon finds herself offering to help. There’s Winston, the ninety-year-old town patriarch who declares himself in love with Claire. There’s Vella, caring for an invalid husband, exchanging e-mails with a man named Harold whom she’s met via an online support group. And there are Travis and Larkin Ford, father and son, either of whom might be a love interest for Claire.
As Claire is drawn into the lives of the people around her, the days become weeks. Just as she finds a hint of a place she can call home, Andrew shows up, wanting to reconcile. Far from being a welcome face, he’s now a jarring intrusion. But will Valentine really give Claire what she’s been seeking?
All of these people spend time telling the story, alternating viewpoints so we get to know them well. Vella is especially poignant, a strong, independent woman with a lot of love to give and nobody to give it to. Her pain as she cares for her husband, now an empty shell of the man he once was, is heart-wrenching, as is the breath of hope she feels as her friendship with Harold develops in cyber-space.
Sweet Dreams at the Goodnight Motel is a book that must be read slowly, the reader’s pace matching the pace of Valentine. If your standard romance is like a steak hot off the grill, this is more like a slow-cooked roast. It might take time to read it properly, but it’s oh, so savory. The quirks and nuances of small-town life are drawn with care, and not without flashes of humor, as in this exchange between Sherrilyn and the psychiatrist at the hospital:
”Perhaps you thought that attempting to kill yourself would bring your father to show his love,” the psychiatrists said.
“I guess,” replied Sherrilyn, who really thought she had done it because she wanted to be dead.
If you’re hankering for a good book in which to immerse yourself, Sweet Dreams at the Goodnight Motel offers just what you’re looking for. But a word of caution: once you’ve stepped into Valentine, Oklahoma, you may find you never want to leave.