Stranger in a Small Town
by Ann Roth
(Silh. Sp. Ed. #1356, $4.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-24356-1
***
Stranger in a Small Town, Ann Roth's debut novel, treads a well-worn path but still manages to infuse the story with some new twists. Single mother Alison O'Hara is in a bind. Her waitress job is on hiatus while the restaurant is being remodeled; she is in debt up to her eyeballs due to her daughter's heart surgery, and her only recourse to keep the wolf from the door is to take in paying boarders. It's just her luck that the first customer is a tired, dusty man whose truck has broken down not far from her place. Clint Strong really doesn't want any part of this little Indiana town, but until his vehicle is repaired, he's got no place else to go.

Clint is uncomfortable around Alison and her four-year-old daughter, Hannah. He's a former insurance investigator whose own wife and infant daughter died in a fire, leaving him with burn scars on his hand, and even bigger scars on his psyche. Hannah is a reminder of all he lost, and he wants to keep the wall securely in place around his heart.

He's not quite so immune to Alison, though, and neither is she immune to him. As Clint's stay is prolonged by the lack of parts for his truck, he's drawn into the town's rhythms in small ways. Against his will, he feels himself reaching out to help her.

Stranger in a Small Town offers quite a bit to like. Foremost is Clint, who does a fine turn as a taciturn hero who has locked his emotions away from the world. His unwillingness to step out of the secure cocoon he's created is almost palpable, and readers will surely empathize with his pain. His is a well-crafted character; one really wants him to find happiness.

The small-town setting is vivid, too. Millie, Alison's boss, is a robust character and Alison's friend Jenny is likable as an antiques dealer who wants to help her pal out of a jam.

Alison didn't make quite the same impression. She's spunky enough, to be sure; and her devotion to little Hannah is understandable, but at the same time, she's portrayed as a person who has some blinders on about her own kid. Clint's first meeting with Hannah obviously makes him uncomfortable, and Alison's reaction is instant defense and assumption of the worst:

He flat-out disliked Hannah. Alison balled her napkin in her fist. An innocent child! Somehow her daughter had offended him. Surely he realized she meant no harm. Though, by the stony frown on his face, that didn't appear to be the case.

The idea that maybe some people don't find precocious tykes all that amusing doesn't seem to register with this woman. And Hannah takes up a lot of space in this story. Readers will need a fairly high tolerance for the "precious".

A subplot involving a missing heirloom necklace was predictable in nature, as was the evil banker who is trying to thwart Alison. No surprises there. And the author's prose sometimes fell into a lulling rhythm, rather flat in nature.

However, these quibbles aside, Stranger in a Small Town is a respectable debut. Interestingly enough, what struck me most was the hero's gradual emotional thawing. It was more engrossing than the budding romance, which felt fairly tepid by comparison. Perhaps it will sing better for you than it did for me.

--Cathy Sova


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