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Blame It On Cupid
by Jennifer Greene
(HQN, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN-978-0-373-77177-6
****
Blame It On Cupid has one of those totally unbelievable premises that only romance writers can think up and only romance readers can swallow. Who else would believe that a devoted and committed father might name a near stranger as guardian to his beloved eleven-year-old daughter? Who else would accept that this guardianship comes with all expenses paid, including a house next door to an attractive, unattached male? And yet, however implausible this story sounds, romance readers won’t regret their time. Forget the set-up! Jennifer Greene gives us characters we can really care for.

Merry Olsen knew Charlie Ross years ago, when he was recovering from a bad divorce and a prolonged custody battle. They never progressed much beyond drinking buddies, but she promised to take care of his daughter should the need arise. When she learns that time has come, she packs up her Mini Cooper and heads for Virginia, determined to bring some love into little Charlene’s life.

The youngster in a marine brush cut, combat boots and army fatigues is nothing like the bereaved little woman Merry was expecting. She nevertheless quickly realizes that this gender-bending behavior is how Charlie (as the girl likes to be called) deals with grief. Others, including the court-appointed guardian ad litem (who must decide whether Merry is to keep her position), don’t see things the same way. To make matters worse, Merry’s ditzy attitude seriously undermines her credibility. She has her work laid out for her convincing both her ward and the court that she means serious business.

One reason why stories like this might irritate is because the characters’ eccentricities are frequently as ridiculous as the plot. Indeed, Merry’s unorthodox methods and scatterbrained inclinations could quickly degenerate into annoyingly forced quirkiness. Because Merry voices her insecurities and qualms, this never happens. Instead, I slowly discovered the woman behind the posture and began to admire her stoic but soothing outlook.

I wasn’t the only one. Merry also charms her next-door neighbor. Initially, Jack Mackinnon is as turned off by Merry’s apparently vacuous schemes as he is turned on by her body. He nevertheless finds it hard to tune out his latent chivalry and repeatedly offers a supportive hand.

This contrast between what Jack thinks he wants and what he actually wants makes him another complex character and a good match for Merry. He likes his job as a cryptographer; appreciates the time he spends with his twin sons; and enjoys his active social and sexual life. Still reeling from his divorce, he is certainly not looking for any new attachments. He is, in many ways, a man’s man: he is rather clueless about grocery shopping, has a name for his most significant body part, and is totally out of touch with his inner self. All this might spell “jerk” were it not for the underlying vulnerability, loneliness and basic decency that Merry quickly perceives. Watching him admit (however reluctantly) to his emotional needs and actually talk about himself and his feelings was one of the high points of this novel.

Jack’s teenaged sons, Kicker and Cooper, and Charlie are the main secondary characters. Her tragic circumstances, while never outrightly avoided, are frequently bypassed to acknowledge her other, more typically preteen issues (first period, first crush, first dance, first sleep-over). This may be one reason why the novel never descends into melodramatic excesses. As for the two boys, despite their relatively minor presence, they are well-rounded and their problems terrifyingly believable.

All in all, Greene avoids the mawkish, the tragic and the saccharin. She does an outstanding job creating something real and multidimensional out of what is essentially category romance material. If you like character-driven, feel-good stories, this one is definitely a must read.

--Mary Benn


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