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REVIEW: The Crossroads Cafe by Deborah Smith

Dear Ms. Smith,

The Crossroads CafeSince Jayne has already summarized the storyline of The Crossroads Cafe, I’ll advise our readers to check out her review and proceed to go into what I liked about this book and didn’t work so well for me. Fortunately, there was a lot more of the former than of the latter. The Crossroads Cafe was the first of your books that I’ve read, and I was impressed with several things, beginning with the way the book begins, with a prologue that flashes forward to a scene that is revisited later in the book.

Before the accident, I never had to seduce a man in the dark. I dazzled millions in the brutal glare of kliegs on the red carpets of Hollywood, the flash of cameras at the Oscars, the sunlight on the beaches of Cannes. Beautiful women don’t fear the glint of lust and judgment in men’s eyes or the bitter gleam of envy in women’s. Beautiful women welcome even the brightest light. Once upon a time, I had been the most beautiful woman in the world.

Now I needed the night, the darkness, the shadows.

“Put the gun down,” I ordered, as I let my bra and sweatshirt fall to the ground.

That’s quite an opening, and not just because of the plot hooks found in it, but also because the words flow with a cadence that speaks to the narrator’s vulnerability and pain. It’s unusual for me to find an author of contemporary romances who evokes her characters’ emotions in me so quickly, with such effective sentence rhythms.

The narrator of the prologue Cathy, a burn survivor whose struggle to recover from her trauma is chronicled in The Crossroads Cafe. The book is alternately narrated in sections by Cathy and by Thomas, a widower who lost his wife and young son in the tragedy of September 11th. I feel that your use of the alternating first person structure gives the book freshness.

Of course, this being a romance, Cathy and Thomas meet and fall in love, but one of the other things I appreciated is that there was more to The Crossroads Cafe than just their romance. It was also a story of healing, one in which Cathy’s burn scars are mirrored in the inner scars carried not only by Thomas, but also by many of the other characters who reside in Crossroads, North Carolina.

Most of the characters are quirky or even downright eccentric, and although I felt it was unlikely that so many emotionally scarred eccentrics would populate the story, I also enjoyed their idiosyncrasies. One of the problems I sometimes run into when reading contemporary romances is that when comparing the characters to people I know in real life, the characters don’t ring true because they feel sanitized to me. Even the supporting characters sometimes don’t have political opinions or sexual peccadilloes or unusual clothes, and if anyone is gay, it’s most likely the heroine’s best friend or the husband who conveniently never consummates their marriage.

That’s not the case in The Crossroads Cafe. Here the characters feel like real life people. They know their personal pitfalls because at one time or another, they’ve all fallen. I’ve mentioned political opinions, and yes, they espouse those. Some readers may not see eye to eye with those left-of-center viewpoints, but I felt this gave the characters greater believability. Most interesting to me was the book’s exploration of the politics of physical beauty. Cathy’s self-image is initially tied in to her physical appearance, and her tentative examination of the question of whether beauty confers real power is part and parcel of her growing realization that she is more than her looks.

I would have liked a stronger sense of what Cathy was like before the accident that scarred her. The impression I have is that she was somewhat shallow, and I wish she’d had more substance, because I think the gorgeous but shallow actress is something of a stereotype and I don’t think that less attractive people are necessarily wiser or better. This was only a minor issue for me, because most of the book is about Cathy post-accident, and the growth she experiences as a result of the accident gave her depth and dimension. I especially liked that you gave her phobias. Though they seemed slightly exaggerated at times, they also made her feel human and real.

Thomas was also an interesting and multidimensional character, and his journey out of guilt and alcoholism made for compelling reading. I thought his relationship with his bitter sister-in-law was wonderfully powerful. But I had a couple of minor issues with his character. The first is that I was not always convinced that Thomas was a former Manhattanite; his fondness for Spam and his use of the word “pecker” seemed at odds with that. A second and bigger obstacle for me was that for a good portion of the book, Thomas dressed like a bum and had a ZZ Top style beard. This was a reflection of his self-blame and that it also nicely tied in to your book’s theme of inner beauty trumping outward good look and scarred eccentrics healing one another, but shallow me, I still spent a good chunk of the book distracted by my irrational aversion to his facial hair.

It takes a long time for Thomas and Cathy to officially become a couple, and though I would have liked that section of the book to be just a bit more tightly paced, I appreciated the fact that Cathy and Thomas took the time to get to know each other before going to bed. Once they did get together, their relationship seemed a bit rushed, especially as they took on some joint responsibilities perhaps too quickly. I liked the way these both strengthened and strained their budding commitment to one another. The event that cemented that commitment seemed a little contrived to me, but it nonetheless made for emotionally satisfying drama.

The Crossroads Cafe also includes the characters’ insights and bits of wisdom. Some of this were wonderful to read; others felt heavy-handed to me. For example, I loved the way Cathy’s baking attempts mirrored her own struggle for self-acceptance, but I picked up on the metaphor of the biscuits and cream gravy as love and acceptance early on, and didn’t need for it to be explained. That was one of several cases where I wished for more subtlety.

I liked the strong sense of place imbued in this book; you depicted the Appalachian region of North Carolina with precision and vividness, and that’s another thing I don’t always find in the books I read.

My opinion of The Crossroads Cafe is that it’s a big book: not just in length or in its large cast of characters but in the largeness of its heart and its generous attempt to give us readers more than we get from the average contemporary romance. The Crossroads Cafe is thought-provoking, original and ambitious. Like its main characters, it is far from perfect, but more than worthwhile. I am very glad I read it, and I give it a high B.

Sincerely,

Janine

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

9 Comments

  1. Jayne
    Feb 01, 2007 @ 06:20:48

    Are Manhattanites not allowed to like Spam?

    ReplyReply

  2. Alison Kent
    Feb 01, 2007 @ 11:17:51

    [quote comment="22745"]Are Manhattanites not allowed to like Spam?[/quote]

    Is that like the episode of SATC where Carrie insists Manhattanites don’t wear scrunchies, and her relationship with Ron Livingston goes downhill after that?

    ReplyReply

  3. Janine
    Feb 01, 2007 @ 12:24:05

    Are Manhattanites not allowed to like Spam?

    LOL. Of course they are allowed to like Spam, but I would venture to guess that as a gross generalization, most of them prefer deli meats.

    I felt that the Southern characters were very convincing as such, but Thomas was a little less convincing as a New Yorker. The Spam thing is one example I gave to explain why I felt that way. It may not be the best example, but I still would have liked to have seen a bit more of New York reflected in the character.

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  4. Jayne
    Feb 01, 2007 @ 12:35:37

    Well, maybe Thomas couldn’t get deli meat there and was making do with the best substitute he could find. ;)

    ReplyReply

  5. Janine
    Feb 01, 2007 @ 12:39:42

    : )

    ReplyReply

  6. AAR Rachel
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 08:25:34

    I got this book for my mother for her birthday in October. She loved it. Then she passed it on to me and I couldn’t get past the first third. I have loved Smith in the past, esp. A Place to Call Home and Hold on Tight, but her I thought she was trying to hard to be PROFOUND about outward appearance and suffering and the value of community and and and…
    Plus, the utter callousness of the husband, well, that seemed awfully convenient to me. A get-out-of-jail card, plot-wise.
    And – does this make me weird? – none of the food mentioned ad nauseum sounded remotely good to me.
    DNF for me.

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  7. Jane
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 10:22:23

    Rachel – I loved a Place to Call Home but this one has been languishing in my TBR pile for the very reason that you stated. I read somewhere (I thought from Jayne) that this book was in need of editing because of its over the top melodramaticness (at least that is how I read it) and so, it lays there, forlorn, gathering dust.

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  8. Janine
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 11:03:58

    I got this book for my mother for her birthday in October. She loved it.

    Glad your mom liked it, Rachel.

    Then she passed it on to me and I couldn’t get past the first third.

    For what it’s worth, I think the book gets stronger as it goes on.

    I have loved Smith in the past, esp. A Place to Call Home and Hold on Tight, but her I thought she was trying to hard to be PROFOUND about outward appearance and suffering and the value of community and and and-

    Maybe the difference is that you were comparing Smith to herself, and I was comparing her to the average contemporary romance author? I agree that she was trying a bit too hard; that’s why I felt a need for more subtlety. But at the same time, I liked that she was trying to say something in this book and that it wasn’t just fluff (Not that fluff can’t be fun, but something more substantial can be good too, and is more difficult to find).

    Plus, the utter callousness of the husband, well, that seemed awfully convenient to me. A get-out-of-jail card, plot-wise.

    I agree about that; the husband could have been more fleshed out as a character.

    And – does this make me weird? – none of the food mentioned ad nauseum sounded remotely good to me.

    I didn’t mention this in my letter, but I did get a bit tired of reading about the same food over and over. I had the same issue with Crusie’s Bet Me. I don’t like to eat the same food every day, and there’s only so much I can read about the same food, too.

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  9. AAR Rachel
    Feb 02, 2007 @ 15:53:01

    I didn’t mention this in my letter, but I did get a bit tired of reading about the same food over and over. I had the same issue with Crusie’s Bet Me. I don’t like to eat the same food every day, and there’s only so much I can read about the same food, too.

    I agree. I had never had Chicken Marsala before, and after the book I tried it – and thought, “Wow. I can’t imagine this could fuel a whole book.” Now, Dove bars (from Welcome to Temptation), those can be my muse any day. :)

    ReplyReply

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