Once upon a time the romance genre was situated firmly at the bottom of the literary pile, along with pulp westerns and the like but was nevertheless incredibly popular and a real cash cow for certain publishing companies such as Masquerade and Mills & Boon. Some romances were of a sufficiently high enough standard to attract the notice of more reputable publishing houses and writers like Georgette Heyer managed to transcend the almost universal dismissal of the genre and achieve best selling success. Most of these romance novels, however, were historicals which I guess is because distance lends enchantment and so this type of book is rather more acceptable to the reader than contemporary romances which frequently highlight the shortcomings in their own lives.
Whilst Mills & Boon continue to churn out the usual contemporary pap with titles such as The Squillionaire's Pregnant Secretary or The Beautiful Young Widow Nabs Herself a European Count/Shipping Magnate/Prince (please insert whichever rich and/or titled man you prefer), the American market was changing and a different kind of romance was coming to the fore: not quite ChickLit as we have in Britain but certainly romance with more reality involved. One of the early proponents of this new romantic fiction was Jennifer Crusie, who fell into writing romance whilst researching for her PhD thesis and decided to have a go herself. Admittedly her first few titles were published by Masquerade but it was obvious to all who read them that they were a cut above the run of the mill titles they generally published and she soon moved into writing longer length novels where she could develop her plots and characterisation further. Of all her best selling romances, Welcome to Temptation is my favourite.
Sophie Dempsey comes to Temptation, Ohio, with her sister Amy, as they have been hired to make a video about the return of a washed up B movie actress to her home town. Although Sophie and Amy are fairly legitimate film makers, they come from a family of con artists and sometimes it's hard to deny what's in the blood, sometimes even conning each other. What Amy has failed to tell Sophie is that the nature of the film is less documentary and more soft porn! When Sophie meets the town mayor Phineas Tucker, she's immediately attracted and the feeling is mutual though trust is another matter entirely but the budding romance hits a glitch when somebody turns up dead and Sophie is looking like the prime suspect.
As far as I'm concerned, this novel has it all: romance, humour, an element of mystery, all wrapped up in a convoluted but highly enjoyable plot. Most Mills & Boon style romances are character driven with very little plot to speak of but this novel is most definitely plot driven whilst not compromising on characterisation.
Sophie is the good girl of her family though she has her demons, one of which is that she was badly let down by a rich boy from the right side of the tracks, so when she meets Phin Tucker who fits perfectly into that mould, even though she's very attracted to him, she can't help but be wary of someone who is so obviously way out of her social league. Phin, too, likes what he sees but as a widower with a young daughter, he's not looking for any long term commitment. He's the fourth Phineas T Tucker to be mayor of Temptation, a role he doesn't relish. He'd far rather be playing pool with his friend, Wes, the sheriff, running his book shop and spending time with his daughter but he finds Sophie just too tempting to resist. It's a classic case of chalk and cheese or so it seems on the surface but underneath it all, Sophie's an outsider who wants into the club and Phin's an insider who wants to break out, so maybe not so different after all. These are two characters who are instantly likeable and the reader is rooting for them to each achieve their happy-ever-after.
Added into the romantic mix are a couple of secondary romances, small town politics, an overbearing mother and a murder, not to mention some sizzling sex scenes which manage to be sensual, romantic and erotic without going into great biological detail. Very few of these encounters actually take place in a bed. In fact, on one memorable occasion, we're talking al fresco!
Although the book is rooted in a kind of realism, it doesn't pretend to be totally true to life and Jennifer Crusie manages to achieve just the right balance between reality and escapism. I'm sure small town America is very similar to that portrayed here, certainly if it's anything like small town England, full of pompous so-and-so's who think they know what's best for the community. (Think of dyed-in-the-wool Tory voting, blue-rinse brigade with American accents and you're just about there.) Though the characters here are larger than life, there is a kernel of reality making them believable.
Despite the additional mystery plotline, this is essentially a romance so probably won't appeal too much to the average man. This is a great shame because if more men read these books, especially the love scenes which are great instruction manuals on how to please a woman, there'd be far more happy marriages in the world!
This book was originally published in 2000 and it's fair to say that with this book Jennifer Crusie raised the bar for aspiring romance writers. She gave readers an light and amusingly entertaining read with a luscious romance at its heart. It would be churlish to give it anything less than five stars.
Paperback copies of this book are available used from 1p. It's a small price to pay for such an excellent read.
The full quote from my title is by Rita Mae Brown. 'Lead me not into temptation. I can find the way myself.'