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The Marriage

Sleeping Beauty

Tessa's Child

Loving Jessie by Dallas Schulze
(Mira, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 1-55166-791-6
This book begins with a distasteful - and implausible - premise: when Jessie Sinclair was only fifteen, she palled around with two guys nearly ten years older than she. Jessie was raised by her grandfather. Call me old-fashioned and over-protective, but no way am I going to let my nubile teenaged daughter hang out and frolic in the surf with two dudes in their mid-twenties, and I can’t believe Grandpa, who seems to have been doting rather than neglectful, is going to allow this either. Of course, the two men didn’t see Jessie as anything other than a child - “Little Jessie.” Oh yeah, everyone would consider a fifteen-year-old California chick in a swimsuit a child, right? As I said, distasteful and implausible.

At the age of sixteen, Jessie gave her heart away to Reilly McKinnon; now that she’s almost thirty she’s still a virgin because she never got over him. She’s a Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chef, but thanks to Grandpa’s legacy, she doesn’t have to work full-time so she creates spectacular desserts for a local diner. She despairs of ever being a wife and mother so decides to become a mother without a husband.

Reilly married Dana, a beauty queen, but after five years his marriage is in trouble. Matt Latimer was the third member of this oh-so-innocent mčnage ŕ trois. He’s been working as a highly successful freelance photojournalist all around the world, but following a gunshot wound, he’s burned out and is returning to his roots in Millers Crossing, California.

At Reilly’s urging, Dana throws a welcome home party for Matt. Jessie has too much wine so Matt drives her home giving her an impulsive, passionate kiss at the door. This plants an idea in Jessie’s mind. She invites him to a gourmet dinner then asks that he father her child. Matt is irate and immediately rejects the idea. Overnight, however, he changes his mind. But he will agree with a proviso: they must marry.

Although Loving Jessie is being issued as a non-series, single title contemporary, it has a decided formulaic category romance feel about it. And a decades-old - or older - category at that. Heroine senses her biological clock ticking, has given up waiting for Mr. Right, asks long-time platonic friend to be sperm donor, ends up passionately in love. Barbara Delinsky’s 1991 category The Stud has exactly the same plot. Throwing in an abusive childhood, some post-traumatic-stress, an awkward love triangle, and a few tastebud-titillating desserts does not serve to distinguish it from its stereotypical roots. Furthermore, the incident that precipitates a crisis in Jessie’s and Matt’s marriage - Matt walks in when Jessie and Reilly are sharing a kiss - is a classic Big Misunderstanding straight out of the romances of the 70's.

Jessie particularly seems trapped in a time-warp. Apparently she hasn’t been reading women’s magazines because thoughts of adoption or sperm banks haven’t crossed her mind. And she doesn’t even ask Matt if he’ll make his contribution in a little plastic cup. Nope, he’s given her one passionate kiss so she jumps to the conclusion that he’s a good candidate for the traditional delivery method. She hasn’t spared a thought for the ethics involved.

Matt’s initial reaction is his smartest move: he’s outraged and insulted. But the next day he reverts to type: yes, take my sperm but it’s got to be marriage. Oh, come on. Hasn’t he ever heard of adoption or sperm banks either? He’s aware that he’s suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder, he doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to be a photographer again, he spends a great deal of time eyeballing Jessie’s physical attributes - particularly her long legs - then chastising himself because she’s “Little Jessie” and he shouldn’t think of her like that, and he knows she’s in love with Reilly. Does this sound like a solid basis for marriage?

It’s hard to figure out why Jessie has carried a torch for Reilly for nearly half her life. His one attraction seems to be his good looks. He seems pretty devoid of any personality. Not to mention he comes across as downright unrealistic. In the scene when Reilly confesses to Matt that he was unfaithful to Dana, any similarity to real guy talk is purely coincidental.

The most sympathetic character is Dana. Raised in beauty contest environment, she believes herself to have no value beyond her physical appearance. Reilly’s infidelity causes her to doubt her worth and wonder whether the fault lies within her. Based on her cool, unflappable appearance, most people judge her icy and unloving. Moreover, in the five years she’s been married to Reilly, Jessie has never tried to get acquainted with her, to learn that she’s a smart woman with a delightful sense of humor. It’s hard not to think that Dana might be better off moving on and finding people with a little depth and a stronger commitment to those they care about. Or that this might be a better book if she’d been the heroine instead of Jessie.

The story begins with an uncomfortable premise and continues for nearly 400 pages with a lame, contrived plot and one-dimensional, unrealistic characters. I found myself wishing that Loving Jessie had emulated the shorter length of the old category romances as well as its time-worn conventions. There’s not much to love in Loving Jessie.

--Lesley Dunlap

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