Dear Cupid

Drive Me Wild

Falling for You by Julie Ortolon
(St. Martin’s, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-312-97872-3
Julie Ortolon’s third contemporary love story takes the classic mismatched couple - she’s spontaneous and daring, he’s straight-laced and cautious - and delivers an entertaining, past-faced read with a surprisingly sensitive look at a challenging personal disability. The couple’s romance temporarily falters due to a dreaded Big Secret, but the book is redeemed by strong secondary characters and a rousing finale.

Falling For You starts out like a recipe for your basic Screwball Romantic Comedy. Take one stuffy bachelor banker, scion of a wealthy Galveston, Texas family. Add in a beautiful, curvaceous redhead with notorious relatives, who has big dreams about turning the abandoned mansion on Pearl Island into a bed-and-breakfast inn. Watch the sparks fly as Aurora “Rory” St. Claire convinces Oliver “Chance” Chancellor to help her process the paperwork for a bank loan to finance her ambitious project. I must admit that I sighed in despair when Rory told Chance that she was “not good at analytical stuff…you know, reading up on things, filling out paperwork.” Not another ditzy, bubble-headed heroine, I muttered. But wait! There’s a rational explanation for Rory’s reliance on Chance’s skills. Once the reader discovers it, Rory looks a whole lot more sympathetic, even courageous. For a while, I enthusiastically rooted for this heroine to find her happily-ever-after.

Then the plot degenerates into the dreaded “He’s too good for me/I’m out of his league” conflict. And Rory and Chance’s budding relationship is further disrupted by one of those awful Big Secrets, which could have been avoided if everyone involved used a bit more common sense. Fortunately, my frustration was tempered by the book’s other strengths.

First, Rory’s relationships with her older brother and sister are endearingly realistic. Brother Adrian is a chef and the family protector, while sister Allison has a tragic past that has made her much more cautious than Rory. Surprisingly, it’s baby sister Rory who is the idea person with the energy to make an impossible dream come true, and both Adrian and Allison follow her lead, albeit with some reservations.

Second, Chance’s interactions with his parents provide revealing clues about his own behavior. Ortolon doesn’t stoop to making Mr. and Mrs. Chancellor caricatures of rich snobs - they exhibit occasional signs of that stereotype, but are primarily complex, sympathetic figures. Chance has never even considered breaking the rules because he loves his imperfect but well-meaning family, but ultimately he decides that living his life to please them will only make him miserable.

It’s helpful to understand the forces behind Chance’s behavior, because he acts like an oblivious jerk at several points. Despite his attraction to Rory, he spends much of the story trying to convince himself that he wants to marry the wealthy debutante his parents have hand-picked for him. His utter cluelessness about how much his actions hurt Rory is exceeded only by the sweetness (and humor) of his final, romantic gesture. Two more points to Ortolon for not making the debutante a haughty villainess; in fact, she has her own important part to play in the plot.

I haven’t read either of Ortolon’s previous releases, but Falling for You indicates that her current strengths lie in the areas of character and dialogue. If she can get past the clichéd plots, she’ll be in a league of her own. Lead Me On, the next book in the Pearl Island trilogy, features the more level-headed but troubled Allison St. Claire. It won’t be an auto-buy for me, but I’ll certainly consider Ortolon’s future releases when I’m in the mood for a sunny contemporary romance.

--Susan Scribner

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