Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Romance of Camping

I'm taking a break from werewolves and winged vampires to visit the world of Shannon Stacey's Kowalski family. There are currently three books in this contemporary romance series. I decided to bite off both ends and skip the middle book, Undeniably Yours, for the time being since reliable sources tell me that it's really underwhelming by comparison.

I wasn't exactly optimistic about this book. The premise is that Keri and Joe dated in high school, and from all accounts were quite in love. But Keri has something of an identity crisis and chooses to leave to start a journalism career in California rather then become Mrs. Joe Kowalski. Eighteen years later, she works for a magazine that thrives on intrusive celebrity stories. Keri's boss finds out that she has connections to Joe (now a famous horror writer) and commands her to go get an interview with as much dirt on him as possible. Joe comes up with a blackmail scheme wherein he will allow himself to be interviewed if Keri will spend two weeks camping with him and his family. For me this added up to a contrived plot, and a heroine who sounded selfish and shallow and therefor unlikeable.

To my surprise, there was plenty to like about this book. I have my own fond childhood memories of camping, and there was something nostalgic in the details of the Kowalski's family activities. They also made me crave s'mores like you would not believe. I loved the family dynamics, from the kids and their roughhousing to the adult reality of marital problems. And the romance between Joe and Keri, while not exactly perfect, had some sweet emotional moments.

I was surprised at the depth of character development that Stacey managed to achieve in both main characters. In particular, she addressed Keri's original reasons for leaving for California in such a way that I actually understood her motivations. I came to sympathize with her desire for a career and an identity of her own. She also touches on some of Joe's struggles--with relationships, alcohol, his writing career--in a way that rings fairly true to me.

Now, I had several frustrations with this book. The biggest one was Joe's twin sister, Terry. She was friends with Keri long ago, but Keri snubbed her in high school and Terry is carrying a major grudge. She is absolutely awful to Keri for most of the book. And were it just that, I could let it go--everyone has people they don't get along with. But in reality, she just has a grating personality. She's bossy, bitter, self absorbed, and nosy. The subplot with her marital problems really annoyed me because I simply didn't find her to be a sympathetic character.

I also had some issues with the career vs. love conflict that was at the heart of the story. Stacey successfully made me see Keri's point of view in wanting a flashy successful career. But Joe doesn't get it. He assumes, when their relationship heats up again, that Keri will come and live with him, switching jobs and losing much of what she's worked for. It takes a long time for it to even occur to him that he might be the one to make a sacrifice to be with her. Without giving away how this is all resolved, I'll just say that I found it unsatisfactorily one sided and would have appreciated more of a compromise.

I think this was the very definition of "an ok book". It's not something that blew my mind, nor is is something that I regret spending time or money on. There were enough good moments that I'm willing to read some of Shannon Stacey's other work. 3.5 stars.

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