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Posts Tagged ‘rom-com’

vinegarAlthough Anne Tyler’s new novel is a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew commissioned for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Vinegar Girl (Hogarth, digital galley) reads more like a Tyleresque version of the movie Green Card. That’s fine with me, because I’ve always found Shrew problematic for its sexism, even if the two lovers appear to be in cahoots by the end. But I remember Green Card as a charming rom-com, and Vinegar Girl has the easy charm of many of Tyler’s books, with their endearingly oddball characters living seemingly ordinary lives. And, of course, the setting is now Baltimore, “Charm City.”

Kate Battista is a 29-year-old teaching assistant at a neighborhood pre-school, still living at home looking after her widower scientist father Louis and her pretty 15-year-old sister Bunny. She’s not so much shrewish as forthright and tactless — an altercation with a college professor led to her dropping out without a degree in botany — and while her young students adore her, their parents aren’t as comfortable. Still, she’s remarkably patient with her father’s eccentricities –“meat mash” for dinner all week — and over-indulgence of Bunny, at least until he proposes she marry his research assistant, Pyotr, so he can stay in the country. She’s mad and sad as she stomps up the stairs: “He must think she was of no value; she was nothing but a bargaining chip in his single-minded quest for a scientific miracle.”

This then is the farcical set-up for courtship, but the ensuing antics are mild and rather sweet. Pyotr, although literal-minded, is nowhere near as clueless as his employer. He admires Kate’s individuality, her long black curls, how she “resemble flamingo dancer.” Sure, he speaks bluntly without articles and adjectives, but Kate realizes he has layers of thought and feeling. She defends him to busybody relatives, and then is surprised when Aunt Thelma pronounces him “a cutie.”

A subplot involving Bunny’s sudden attraction to a pot-smoking neighbor and thus to veganism and animal-rights seems somewhat forced, but it does provide Tyler the chance for some satirical observations and to kick the action up a gear. The scenes of Kate at nursery school are spot on. The kids play and bicker — “Did so.” “Did not” — like the four-year-olds they are, occasionally spouting perfect gems, as when one girl talks about frolicking baby goats: “Yes, a few of them were just barely beginning to fly.”  The children may not see Kate as an authority figure, but they recognize her as a kindred spirit. The little boys want to marry her one day. They accept her for who she is, as does Pyotr, who knows she is more than a green card.

Still, the question remains. Will Kate and Pyotr marry for convenience, go their separate ways, or will they make a true match of it? Tyler takes her cue from another Shakespeare play: All’s well that ends well. Summer reading, anyone?

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penthouseYou know how characters in rom-coms meet cute? The likeable threesome in Elinor Lipman’s The View from Penthouse B (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley) live cute. After Margot loses her divorce settlement to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi-scheme, she asks her widowed sister Gwen-Laura to share expenses in her Greenwich Village penthouse. To economize even further, they then rent out the maid’s room to Anthony, a gay man in his 20s who has lost his job at Lehman Bros. and makes wonderful cupcakes. All three have man trouble: Margot’s ex, a fertility doc who went to prison in an infamously sleazy fraud case, is paroled and moves into a studio in their building; Gwen cautiously re-enters the dating world via online sites with decidedly mixed results; and Anthony’s on the lookout for a good guy after his current boyfriend moves on.  Some of the antics, especially Gwen’s online dating woes, have a been-there, done-that Sex in the City feel, but Lipman’s writing sparkles and her characters charm.

mercycloseI suppose I could include Marian Keyes’ The Mystery of Mercy Close (Viking, digital galley) in a crime fiction column, but the mystery’s just the excuse for Keyes to write another “Walsh sister” tale. (Previous include Rachel’s Holiday, and Anybody Out There?) Helen is the fifth of the five sisters, a pragmatic private detective with a sharp wit and past issues with depression. Now that Ireland’s suffering post-Celtic Tiger blues, Helen’s PI business is on the skids; she’s lost her office and now her flat, and facing more unpaid bills, moves back home at 33 with intrepid Mammy Walsh. Her ex-boyfriend Jay, promoting a reunion concert of the once-famous boy band The Laddz, hires her to find band member Wayne, who has disappeared from his Mercy Close house four days before the concert. Looking for Wayne hither and yon, Helen gets help from her current lovely boyfriend Artie, a divorced cop with three kids, and Harry, a mobster who leaves her cryptic messages. Mammy Walsh is also on hand, especially when Helen tries to get in touch with Decker, the Laddz member who went on to pop star fame and fortune a la Bono. A mostly good time is had by all, even as Helen copes with a depressive cycle that seriously threatens her well-being. All of the Walsh sisters are head cases to a degree, but I think quirky, self-deprecating Helen may be my favorite.

whileAre you and your friends still discussing the fate of poor Matthew on the last episode of Downton Abbey? Then you’ll no doubt identify with the four residents of an historic Atlanta high-rise who star in Wendy Wax’s While We Were Watching Downton Abbey (Berkeley, paperback galley). Concierge Edward arranges the screenings, which bring together married-to-old-money Samantha, blocked writer Claire and unhappy divorcee Brooke. As they mull over the upstairs-downstairs lives of the TV characters during its second season, they face their own troubles with a new resolve. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t watch Downton Abbey “getting” this book, but we don’t know any of them, do we?! Fans of Wax’s Ten Beach Road and Ocean Beach know Wax knows what breaks and makes friendships.

tableFriendships and marriages are stressed to the breaking point in Whitney Haskell’s Table for Seven (Random House, digital galley), which follows a supper club from its inception on New Year’s Eve through the next 12 months. Here’s what Haskell does well — the mouth-watering menus at the beginning of each chapter; Will and Fran coping with their rebellious teen daughter; Jaime dealing with her tennis prodigy stepdaughter and her thoughtless husband; and everything about elderly widower Leland. Not-so-well is the predictable off-again-on-again affair between widowed Audrey and sexy bachelor Coop, and Fran’s fantasies of leaving Will for Coop. If my supper group — the Cheese Club of Grater Orlando — was this dysfunctional trying to out-gourmet one another, we wouldn’t have lasted for 15-plus years.

whatshewantsIn Sheila Roberts’ light-hearted What She Wants (Harlequin, digital galley), poker buddies hit on a truly novel idea to improve their love lives. At a library book sale, former high school nerd Jonathan picks up a copy of a best-seller by romance writer Vanessa Valentine, ostensibly for his sister. But peeking at the pages, he discovers good advice for getting high school crush Lissa to pay attention to him at their upcoming reunion. At first, his friends laugh, but soon vertically challenged Kyle and befuddled Adam, whose wife kicked him out, are also reading Vanessa Valentine. Readers of Roberts’ Icicle Falls series (Better than Chocolate), will recognize local landmarks and references to familiar characters, but it’s Roberts channeling Vanessa Valentine that steals the show.

whimseyKaye Wilkinson Barley’s Whimsey: A Novel (self-published, review copy from author) takes its name from a  fictional artists’ colony on a Georgia sea-island founded by the late, legendary Elizabeth Calhoun. Now, her great-niece Emma, an Atlanta  jewelry designer who thinks her talent has deserted her, is resisting her Aunt Zoe’s invitation to become a resident artist at her new upscale gallery on Whimsey. Emma knows going home will mean coming to terms with her childhood best friend Olivia, her girlhood love Eli, and the ghosts of her past, including the opinionated, cigar-smoking Great-Aunt Elizabeth who materializes at both opportune and inappropriate moments. Barley’s fanciful, Southern-flavored tale also includes a chatty imaginary friend named Madeline and a high-heeled pixie named Earlene, which is perhaps two too many supernatural characters.  The imaginative story entertains, but it could use a strong editor.

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