My family can vouch for the fact that I let out a surprised little “Oh!” several times as I read Deborah Smith’s latest novel, Charming Grace. The noise I emitted was one part amusement and three parts surprise. And that, I’ve come to realize, is one of Smith’s many strengths: you just don’t know what’s going to happen next in her books. Oh sure, somehow her star-crossed lovers are going to end up happily ever after, but she’s an expert at taking her plots down hilarious or poignant twists and turns on the way there. That might mean a hero who pierces his navel to impress the heroine (When Venus Fell), or a heroine who throws an apple at the First Lady of the United States (Sweet Hush). And I’m glad I’m invited along for the ride.
Smith revisits one of her favorite themes in Charming Grace – the rich girl/poor boy pairing – but breathes new life into the plot by making it the background for the primary romance. Grace Bagshaw Vance has spent the last two years of her life mourning the death of her husband Harp, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who sacrificed his life to save a hospital full of patients from a terrorist with a deadly bomb. When Grace was just 10 years old, she found the 12 year old Harp hiding in the forest and brought the orphaned boy home to care for him. Defying the wishes of her socially conscious but concerned father, she protected, encouraged and loved Harp until his dying day. Grace feels partially responsible for his death; if Harp hadn’t wanted to prove himself to her family so badly, he wouldn’t have joined the GBI. Because of her guilt, grief and love, she is fiercely determined to protect his legacy at any cost.
So when action-movie-hero-turned-director Stone Senterra arrives in Dahlonega, Georgia to make a movie about Harp’s life and death, Grace vows to stop the madness using whatever means possible. The first emissary from Stone’s camp is Boone Noleene, Stone’s ex-con Cajun bodyguard, whose loyalty to Stone doesn’t blind him to the man’s faults. Boone and Grace strike immediate sparks, but they know they’re on opposite sides of the fence. Boone sympathizes with Grace’s position, but he owes Stone for hiring him straight out of jail. He’s also indebted to his older brother Armand, who took care of him when their mother died, and Stone has promised Armand a job when he gets out of prison in a few short months. Grace understands loyalty, but she’s not going to let Stone turn Harp’s life into a Hollywood blockbuster complete with Matrix-style special effects, a partner who gets all of the best lines (played by Stone himself, of course), and a fictional female character created so that Stone’s ball-busting sister, Diamond, can have a role. When another star-crossed couple of young lovers makes a surprising appearance, Grace and Boone start to re-evaluate the future of their relationship, but they despair of finding a way to be together without compromising Harp’s legacy and Boone’s obligation to his brother.
Smith skewers Hollywood quite as effectively here as she did politics in Sweet Hush. Stone’s script is presented in hilarious yet horrifying contrast to Grace’s reminiscences about her relationship with Harp, and the more the movie runs into trouble, the more Stone descends to the lowest common denominator. Yet you can’t hate him – he really believes he is honoring Harp’s bravery. He just doesn’t know how to do it any other way than to “supersize” it, and his own insecurities contribute to his tendency to run roughshod over Grace’s feelings. Besides, how can a guy who is addicted to chocolate fudge be considered a true villain?
Smith’s books can range from pure drama to satirical comedy, and Charming Grace is definitely one of the more lighthearted of her recent books. There’s only so serious you can get with a film director who decides on the spur of the moment to add a tropical boa constrictor to a story that takes place in the Georgia mountains. The memorable secondary characters also provide plenty of entertainment, most notably Grace’s indomitable grandmother G. Helen, and Stone’s truly horrifying sister Diamond. But the love affair between Grace and Boone is definitely not played for laughs. Smith excels at portraying romance blocked by external conflicts without stupid misunderstandings or game playing. These characters want desperately to be together but can’t let themselves for many reasons. However, at times Grace’s love for Harp is so strong that the reader isn’t entirely sure she has room in her heart for Boone, even when she symbolically says goodbye to her first love. Also, the spirited war between Grace and Stone takes away a bit of the sizzle from the romance.
But when my family has to ask me why I’m talking to the book I’m reading, it means that I’m completely engaged in characters and a story that are real to me. Heaven help us if Hollywood ever decides to make a “major motion picture event” out of one of Deborah Smith’s novels; they’d better do a good job, or Ms. Smith will be right there with her shotgun pointing them in the right direction. And I’ll be right behind her, cheering her on.