The Cinderella Deal by Jennifer Crusie
(Bantam Loveswept 807, $3.50, R)
ISBN 0-553-44557-X
****
Jennifer Crusie's star continues to rise, and she has garnered one of the most loyal sets of fans in contemporary romance. The proof positive is that her earlier novels are as rare as hen's teeth because readers don't give them up. Her brand of Midwestern sensibility, real-life characterizations and sharp, left-field sense of humor keep readers anticipating what she's going to turn out next.

Her final novel for Harlequin, Anyone But You, is destined to become a classic in comedic romance fiction. (See Dede Anderson's review on the Contemporary page)

But readers, be warned. Crusie changes her methods a bit in this story, and if you're expecting the same type of breakneck pacing and runaway laugh riot as ABY offered, you will need to adjust your thinking in order to enjoy this novel. For readers willing to go in with an open mind, it's a fine tale.

Linc Blaise, mild-mannered history professor, wants a job teaching at Prescott College, a small private school in Riverbend, Ohio. He's certainly qualified, but in order to impress the hiring committee, he has alluded to a fiancee he doesn't have. So now Linc has painted himself into a corner. He needs to come up with a temporary fiancee until he clinches the position.

Linc's options are few, but they include his neighbor, Daisy Flattery. Daisy, a former teacher turned artist/storyteller, is the antithesis of everything Linc needs. He wants prim and proper; Daisy is more like Flower Child of the '90s. But she's pretty, and charming, and Linc agrees to pay her a thousand dollars to come and be his fiancee for a weekend at the college. She needs the money, so she agrees to the deal.

A standard approach to this story might have all the action happen in one weekend. You know, by the time the visit is over, Linc is in love with Daisy and they roll off to Prescott to live happily ever after. Crusie doesn't take this approach, and while at first I thought the story was going to drag, by the end I appreciated her plot pacing. It seemed far more realistic, and I knew these two were going to stay together for good.

What Crusie does is have Linc accept the job and move to Ohio. But he can't quite get Daisy off his mind, and pretty soon he's being asked questions about his missing fiancee. Then, Linc is virtually ordered to bring Daisy to Prescott, pronto. Not knowing what else to do, he proposes to Daisy: a temporary marriage, one year max, and she'll have the financial freedom to concentrate on her art. Since both Daisy and Linc are now fantasizing over each other, it sounds like a pretty good deal. We know these two lonely, mismatched individuals are about to make a significant discovery.

The rest of the book takes its time. Linc lusts after Daisy, but she's still a bit too weird for his tastes. Daisy secretly drools over Linc, but he's a stuffed shirt. Gradually, they peel back the layers of each other's personalities, and find that they have more in common than they believed.

Most of Crusie's novels feature a woman as a best friend to the heroine. This is the first romance novel I've read where the best friend is also an ex-lover of the hero, but it's handled so breezily that it's inconsequential. Other folks in the story were developed nicely. A stuffy professor offers up a surprise or two, a drunken faculty wife provides a nice development in character, and the relaxed atmosphere of a small college town permeates the book. The journey may be leisurely, (at times it dragged a bit, I felt) but by the time Daisy and Linc have to face down their fears and admit they want a future together, the reader will feel that they can make it stick.

There's plenty of humor here, too. Daisy is no shrinking violet, and Linc unfolds into someone who is her equal in the fast-mouth department. Snappy dialogue has always been a Crusie trademark, and there's plenty of it to keep the reader entertained. I was glad to see it, because I think Crusie is one of the best in the genre when it comes to funny lines.

So, romance fans, if you're willing to venture down a slightly new path with Jennifer Crusie, if you're willing to read along as she tries a different plot style, you may well be entertained by The Cinderella Deal.

--Cathy Sova


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