Maggie's Wish

Untamed

 
Dear Penelope by Sharon Ihle
(Leisure, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8439-5599-6
***
After a six-year hiatus, Sharon Ihle returns with a new novel set in late-19th century Wyoming. Readers looking for a lighter read set in the Old West should find something to like here.

Lucille Preston is having a most unpleasant day. She arrives in Emancipation, Wyoming from Kansas City to meet up with her fiancé. Charlie relocated months previously to set up his bakery business and the plan was always for Lucy to follow him. Except when she sets foot in Emancipation she finds out Charlie has gone and gotten himself another fiancée. To add insult to injury the tart’s name is Cherry.

With no money and no resources, Lucy must rely on the kindness of strangers. Well, one stranger in particular – saloon owner and professional gambling man Sebastian Cole. Seb has a thing for damsels in distress and when he learns of Lucy’s plight, he offers her a job as hostess/waitress at The Pearly Gates Saloon. Lucy spills more beers than anything else, but by this point it’s too late, Seb is completely bamboozled by her. In the meantime, Lucy has decided she wants to stay in Emancipation – a forward-thinking town where the women run the show. The family screw-up back in Kansas City, her arrival in Wyoming makes her discover something she’s truly good at. She begins writing a newspaper column called “Dear Penelope” – sort of an Old West version of “Dear Abby.”

Penelope has the town enthralled (and the men enraged), and Lucy is determined to make it work. However, Charlie, the man she loves, is engaged to another – and when her parents find out she’s sure her Pa will drag her back kicking and screaming to Kansas City. What’s a girl to do? Well, start looking at handsome Seb Cole in a new light, of course!

Enjoyment of Dear Penelope hinges on a couple of things. One, the reader has to believe a town in 1896 Wyoming could be entirely run by women without men getting all uppity about it. Two, the reader has to be ready for light conflict with a healthy dose of silly. Ihle doesn’t make the mistake of including slapstick comedy in the story, but the conflict here is so light that it’s almost minuscule. For a while this conflict consists of Lucy trying to win back Charlie. After that runs its course, Ihle brings Lucy’s overprotective father and brother to town to stir things up and this is where the story flounders a bit.

Lucy is a sweet girl, if a bit of a klutz. She is lost, trying to find a way to make her way in the world, and figured it would be as Charlie’s wife. When that rug is yanked out from under her she’s rather distraught – she has failed yet again. So discovering she has a knack for writing and offering advice really is a lifeline. Lucy’s writing also make up some of the funnier moments in the book as Ihle includes several “Dear Penelope” columns throughout.

Seb remains an enigma, and for far too long. For a good chunk of the story he merely comes off as a nice guy who likes to rescue women. That’s really about it. Ihle hints at emotional baggage and a tragic past, but doesn’t really introduce this until the last 100 pages of the story. By then it’s a little too rushed – and frankly after hearing a few snippets of what Seb’s childhood was like I wanted more exploration.

The last half of the book lags a bit, mainly because the conflict has then shifted to the arrival of Lucy’s family. They come off as annoying intrusions, especially when Seb’s past is ripe with possibilities for conflict. Instead, Seb’s past rears up for only a handful of chapters, and the reader is stuck reading about Lucy’s blustering father and his outrage over Seb’s occupation.

That said, Dear Penelope is a fast, fun read. After finishing several darker romantic suspense reads in a row, this reviewer found this light western a pleasant change of pace. It’s the ideal story to read when you’re looking to unwind, and offers several hours of enjoyment. It won’t set the world on fire, or change your life forever, but for a leisurely read, it fits the bill nicely.

--Wendy Crutcher


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