Texas Cooking by Lisa Wingate
(Onyx, $6.99. G) ISBN 0-451-41102-1
Texas Cooking is the first in a trilogy and the first contemporary novel by author Lisa Wingate. The story is not your run of the mill contemporary – it is slow paced with old-fashioned values and morality. The romance is like the kind in fairy tales. The prose is flowery in places and drags a little at times.

Colleen (Collie – like the dog) Collins is a highly paid newspaper reporter from Washington DC, who is down on her luck. Her boss was indicted for shady dealings and she got drawn into the mess by his manipulations. She told the truth, and was believed, but her career is in a tailspin due to the scandal. Her live-in boyfriend of six years decided to cool their relationship for fear he might be tarnished. Collie is falling into a depressive state, until her old college roommate, Laura Draper, helps her.

Laura is the editor of a women’s magazine and sends Collie to rural Texas to do a series of articles on southern cooking. Collie, who has never cooked in her life, can’t believe she has dropped so far, so fast. But she finds herself in rattlesnake country in a lemon of a rental car, amid a wealth of wonderful people.

Her landlady, Mrs. Hawthorne, runs an interesting B&B. There are quaint little cottages for rooms, with pea fowls in the front yard (and on the roof), no cell phone service, no faxes, no Internet, a satellite TV system that dictates that everyone in the main house and all the cottages watch the same show, and a land phone system that only works part of the time. Collie feels like she is back in the fifties.

But she also meets Malachi, a ninety-something black man who preaches at his own church, carries groceries to cars for the local store and seems to be an angel if ever there was one on earth. There is Becky, Mrs. H’s daughter-in-law, who works at the local newspaper for $4.50 an hour and wishes she had gone to college. The rest of the locals are just as colorful.

But the one who captures Collie’s heart is True McKitrick. True, who at first appears to be just a cowboy, happens to have inherited the newspaper from his mother. He also owns the local tractor dealership (which has been in his family for several generations.) True has a past that is alluded to and Collie is determined to discover the truth from him. While doing so, and while gathering information for her article, Collie is mesmerized by the landscape, the beauty and the peace. She falls in love with Texas and with True.

Wingate writes sweet romance. Most of it is subtle and although heat is alluded to, it is not the emphasis. The most True and Collie share are kisses. This romance is a true joining of soul mates with the emphasis on emotion.

The downside to this type of romance is the pacing. Just as life in rural Texas moves at a snail’s pace, so does the story. There is little action, except going through the daily activities of the day. Some of these interludes are delightful. There is the auction and big cattle sale. True takes greenhorn Collie to his ranch and she helps to feed the cattle. Another time she gets run over by goats. Yes, life is idyllic in rural Texas.

But that too is the problem. Collie becomes transformed from the big bad city girl to the perfect small town wonder in these pages. There is no question in this story about what is the better life – the question is will she make the right choice in the end. We soon discover, as the story progresses, that most of the people in this little town did make the right choice. True is one of those and thus is shown as content, full of peace and sure of where his life is heading.

Collie’s transformation occurs slowly and is highlighted by stories she puts down on paper. She hates her conversion and fights it all the way. It is the author’s certainty that Collie must make this change in her life that makes me uncomfortable with the story. I am growing weary of the trend that small town life is ideal while big city life is all things evil.

Here is an example of some of the prose that bogs the story down and borders on the preachy:

“No point looking too far down the road. While you’re staring into the future, the present is passing by moment by moment, like fence posts along the highway, and you never know what might be between them unless you look. It might be something wonderful. Like the tail feather of a peacock glinting in the sunlight of a warm spring afternoon.”

Here’s another example that Collie writes after interviewing the barbecue cook at the local restaurant:

“Greatness is achieved not only by those who become political leaders or wealthy men, or award winning athletes. It is found in people we look at every day, but never see. [Here she inserts several examples and then concludes:] Greatness is everywhere. It surrounds us every day, in everything we see. It hides in the accomplishments of ordinary people, passing unnoticed, in the little things like barbecue.”

Nice sentiments, but not necessarily what I like to find in my romance stories. For those who like laid back romance with the primary action being living day-to-day, you might find this more than just acceptable. For me, Texas Cooking isn’t completely satisfying to my palate.

--Shirley Lyons

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