Stray Hearts

Romeo & Julia by Annie Kimberlin
(Lovespell, $5.50, G) ISBN 0-505-52341-8
Right off the bat I have to admit that I am not a cat person. And a person’s enjoyment of Romeo & Julia will definitely be enhanced if they are an avid cat lover. Still, somewhere in the midst of what is essentially a rather saccharine tale, I found myself drawn to the old fashioned simplicity of author Annie Kimberlin’s characters. Oh, they’re way too good to be true, and generally a little too golly gee whiz for even the most homespun types, but still…

Maybe it has to do with the fact that underneath the initial perfection of the characters lie all too realistic modern problems. Set in the small town of Hartley, Ohio, the romance plays out between 40-year-old librarian Liz Hadley and Greek god-like school bus driver Alex Hogan. Liz has recently lost her beloved cat to old age, but can’t resist it when Alex, the man the library clerks refer to as “Romeo,” hands her the kitten he finds in the library parking lot.

Liz is a die-hard devotee of Julia Child, and since the new kitten eats like a fiend, the cat is dubbed Julia. A trip to the vet reveals that Julia is going to be a mom, which brings all sorts of issues to surface for Liz. It’s a fresh reminder of her own inability to have children and the emotional devastation she felt at the defection of her ex-husband to a woman who has since borne multiple fruit.

Alex only drives a school bus when he isn’t handcrafting rocking chairs and cradles and pondering the best way to achieve a wife and 2.5 children. The easy friendship he falls into with Liz makes him wonder whether she would fit his mold. But Liz is older than Alex by ten years…is it still possible for her to have children? This becomes the driving issue in the budding relationship between the two, aside from all the cat stuff and the constant eating that goes on. And I do mean constant.

So much is made of how much Liz cooks, what she cooks, and who she feeds it all to that I found myself constantly hungry while reading this book. Liz cooks incessantly, whipping up divine creations from scratch and giving credence to the old chestnut about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach. Alex certainly buys into the whole mmm, mmm good thing. In fact, he falls for that domestic side of Liz and is ready to commit wholeheartedly -- until Liz unwittingly reveals her secret.

Alex’s reaction to Liz’s barren state definitely causes some of the bloom to go off the rose. He reveals himself as a driven, somewhat self-centered type who can’t even recognize Liz’s pain he’s so busy indulging himself in disappointment. The perfect woman ain’t so perfect…and neither is the perfect man. But each of the characters has a support system of blessedly down-to-earth loved ones who take it upon themselves to set thing straight.

Romeo & Julia is another holiday release that barely mentions Christmas, but it doesn’t detract from the story. Beneath the layers of sugar is a compelling romance that somehow manages to breathe. Animal lovers will probably have an easier time dealing with some of the cutsie-pie Dr. Doolittle dialogue than I did; it was hard getting past a strapping Adonis repeatedly talking about widdew kitties. Schmaltz and all, Romeo & Julia is one many readers, and their cats, will enjoy.

--Ann McGuire

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