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Sugar and Spice

A Taste of Honey by DeWanna Pace
(Jove - Friends, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-12387-0
Toya Reinhart has a problem. She is in love with one man, but betrothed to another. The man she's in love with, Conrad Wagner, loves her in return, and has actually proposed marriage. But Toya had to refuse because of her pledge to Peter Stoltz. Peter was the fiancé of Toya's twin sister, Tilly, but Tilly died three years ago and extracted a deathbed promise from Toya that she would marry Peter in her twin's stead. Since Toya's and Tilly's father also wanted one of the girls to marry the honorable and respected Peter, Toya feels she has no choice but to choose duty over emotion.

Actually, Toya has more problems than she's even aware of. You see, Toya has been best friends with Betina Bram since they were children back in Germany. Now that they and their families have settled in New Genesis, Texas, the two are as close as ever, and their bond seems unshakeable. But trouble lies ahead. Unbeknownst to Toya, Betina is in love with Peter Stoltz! What a tangle!

And that is just the beginning. This is a story filled with events and crises and people and interwoven relationships. Because of this, some readers may find A Taste of Honey to be an exciting page-turner. For me, the overdose of activity left too little time for the development of the main romantic relationship.

So I guess it's lucky that a lot of that development has already taken place when the story opens. Everything described above is backstory filled in as the book progresses. Toya and Conrad – or "Rad" as he is typically called – have managed to avoid each other fairly well since she refused his proposal, but in their small settlement of German immigrants, they won't be able to elude each other forever. As the story begins, they are forced into daily contact when Toya agrees to become a caretaker for Rad's grandfather, who is affectionately called "Opa."

This sounds like an ideal situation for some powerful sexual tension, right? They're in love, they're forced together, but they're kept apart by circumstances. And I could see that the author tried to stir some up, but it doesn't work. Sexual tension depends on resistance. The intensity builds because two characters who want each other desperately simply can't give in. Well, Toya and Rad give in, and give in, and give in. Sure, they don't give in completely, but if not for some timely (and convenient) interruptions, they wouldn't have been able to stop themselves. There's no real inner conflict that can't be swept easily away in the heat of passion.

In the meantime, the book has lots of other issues to deal with. There's the relationship between Toya and Betina, which grows strained as their romantic conflicts intensify. There's the problem of Opa, who often experiences memory lapses and wanders off on his own, getting lost. There's a crisis involving a number of very sick children from a neighboring settlement, whom the New Genesis residents (led by Toya and Rad) try to save. There's Opa's dual romance with both of Toya's widowed aunts. Then one of the aunts gets sick. Then Peter returns to town with a new group of immigrants he's brought over from Germany, including a young orphan girl whom he plans to adopt. With so much going on, the characters hardly have time to talk, and when they do talk, their emotions get in the way of real communication.

In short, A Taste of Honey is a plot-driven story, and the emotional issues can't be resolved until the plot forces them to a head. Other readers may feel differently, but for me, this kind of story is never as satisfying as one that focuses on character. Books like A Taste of Honey feature characters reacting to situations thrust upon them, and I just don't find that particularly interesting.

And in any case, I really felt short-changed by being brought into the middle of Toya and Rad's romance. I didn't get to see them falling in love or getting to know each other – that had already happened by the time I came along. For me, that is what a romance novel is all about, so this left me feeling like an outsider watching strangers move about on a stage.

But there are some things about the book that work. The plot – as filled with unrelated occurrences as it is – does hold together, and although it felt confusing as I read it, I can look back and see that one event did lead more or less logically to another. Toya and Rad are both good people with plenty of admirable qualities, and the book does show some tender and emotionally-charged moments between them. And although I could have done without some of the silly sex-prose (can't we retire the phrase "the nether regions of her desire"?), some of the writing is softly lyrical and evocative, especially the descriptions of the scenery.

So in the end, this may be a book that depends on personal preferences. If you like event-filled stories where plot dictates to character, and if you don't mind jumping into a romantic relationship mid-stream, maybe you'll enjoy A Taste of Honey more than I did.

-- Ellen Hestand

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