Judith Bowen’s Zoey Phillips proved to me once again that even when a romance plot is predictable - I guessed all the major plot developments before I reached page 50 - the story can still engage your emotions. However, this predictability made the first 100 pages of Zoey Phillips a challenge to read. Add to that my early confusion over Zoey Phillips’ ‘best friends’ - there are an awful lot of them - and some unlikely plot developments, and you may wonder why I kept reading. What kept me reading was the same thing that drew me to romance in the first place - the characters and what they come to mean to each other - and I’m not just talking about Zoey Phillips and her high school crush, Ryan Donnelly.
Zoey is returning to Stoney Creek, British Columbia, for the first time in ten years. She left Stoney Creek as soon as she graduated high school to take a summer job in Jasper National Park to help pay for college. Every year the young women who worked at Jasper Park Lodge that summer have a reunion. This summer when Zoey, Charlotte, and Lydia got together, they decided it might be fun to look up their first loves and see if they were “bald, boring, and unappealing” now.
Zoey leaves the reunion and returns to her full-time job of editing a romance writer’s confusing prose without making any plans to look up Ryan Donnelly. A few months later, however, one of her two best friends from high school - not Charlotte or Lydia, silly…they are her best friends from her first job - asks her to come back to Stoney Creek for a month to help organize her step-mother’s second wedding. Zoey agrees, with a little flutter in the region of her heart. Maybe Ryan will see the grown-up Zoey as something more than a pal and a way to make the class beauty jealous.
No sooner has Zoey arrived in Stoney Creek than she discovers that the hotel where she is staying is closing down for the winter. In the nick of time - one day before Zoey has to be out of the hotel - Ryan’s brother, Cameron, makes her an offer. He asks her if she’d like to stay, rent free, in a little apartment he had built for his aunt over the garage, out at his ranch. Cam seems uncomfortable as he makes Zoey the offer, and well he might. The reason he gives for this generous proposition is that he hopes that if Zoey and his brother are thrown together, they’ll make a match of it.
Whoa, Nelly! I can’t envision a real life Cameron Donnelly - the epitome of the strong, silent cowhand - making this sort of offer for this reason. Surely he’d think of some other excuse; I can think of several, off-hand. Guys just aren’t matchmakers, especially tough, hard-working ranchers. However, his offer does put Zoey in the right place to get involved with his bachelor household, made up of himself, his brother Ryan, his young daughter Lissy, and his aunt and housekeeper, Marty.
Even though Zoey’s move to Cam’s ranch felt contrived, it worked. In particular, her tentative approaches to five-year-old Lissy touched me. Despite coming from a large family, Zoey felt awkward and uncomfortable with the child, sure Lissy didn’t like her. Their gradually developing relationship drew me in and ratcheted up my interest in Lissy’s father and uncle and Zoey’s romance with…which one? Even Zoey’s not sure.
Judith Bowen writes a competent, readable prose; her setting…the interior of British Columbia…added to the story’s interest; and I came to appreciate her characters. Nevertheless, the predictability of the story line and the unlikelihood of the way Ms. Bowen brought her characters together were major obstacles to my involvement in her story. Once I got past those stumbling blocks, I enjoyed Zoey’s developing romance, which culminated in one of the most humorous consummations I’ve encountered in a long time. There are rewards if you persist with Zoey Phillips, but you’ll have to negotiate 75 less-than-exciting pages first. I persisted and I was glad I did, but be warned.
--Nancy J. Silberstein