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True Love by Millie Criswell
(Warner, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-60499-2
****
Experienced author Millie Criswell is a master of elements of Americana which attract readers of romantic fiction. Her latest book is an excellent single title after two successful sets of trilogies.

True Love is the tale of a young writer's quest for success via a best-selling piece of pulp fiction. The heroine pens dime novels in the eighteen-eighties, journeys from New York City to True Love, Montana, to write a bestseller, and finds her destiny. Though certain elements seem to be wistful, if not wishful, and historical references are rendered loosely, this book has many successful ingredients a flawed but admirable hero, a naive but feisty heroine, a credible plot and a variety of interesting secondary characters.

Emily Jean Barrett could have followed her mother's example choosing the life of a wealthy, New York socialite had she been willing to marry a man of her family's choosing. Instead, she chooses to pursue her own dream. Her choice means turning her back on a family who refuses to respect her talent or to support her in her chosen career writing popular fiction or in reaching her goal writing romance fiction.

Using her initials, Emily Jean has written Western novels for three years even though she has never left New York City. Most of what she writes is not very realistic, but her books are entertaining and successful across the country.

As this story opens, Wise Publishing Co., the publishing house owned by her mentor, best friend and employer, teeters on the brink of financial disaster. Naturally, Emily sets out to save the business by creating the ultimate dime novel. So it's off to Montana where she attempts to create a celebrity out of reclusive cowboy Jess Murdock in hopes of saving the business, and furthering her personal goal becoming successful enough to have a chance to write romantic fiction. Emily's knowledge of Jess goes no further than having admired him at a distance nearly a year before when he was the main attraction in Wild Bill's traveling show.

Along the way, Emily convinces Jess to consider allowing her to write his story if she will learn to work on his ranch. As it turns out, it is not such an uneven exchange. Emily has some physical hardships and embarrassing moments to endure as she learns to survive and thrive in the West of 1889, but Jess has some emotional demons to face, a process just as demanding.

Criswell uses the background of her hero to flesh out the man he has become. There are times when Jess seems overly crude, other times when Emily seems to vacillate unduly between her mother's sort of delicacy and slipping into the vernacular of her dime-novel creations. Ultimately, these scenes makes them more credible characters.

Criswell also does a good job with the character of Jess' widowed housekeeper, Frances Ferguson, who refuses to admit her romantic interest in the ranch foreman. Criswell effectively infuses her speech with a slight Gaelic effect without stopping the flow of the story.

Though certain characters and their relationships are drawn well, other secondary characters are two-dimensional, disappointing, since there was opportunity to flesh them out more. Certainly, Juan Villalobos, a.k.a. El Lobo, is more a caricature of a villain than a credible threat.

Though flawed, Millie Criswell's latest novel, True Love, is a novel I can recommend. Did I say single title? Who knows? Emily has younger siblings still under Mother's thumb in New York City.

--Sue Klock


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