Small Town Girl by LaVyrle Spencer
(Putnam, $ 23.95, G) ISBN -0-399-14249-5
*****
I have followed LaVyrle Spencer's writing for years -- through what I considered were highs (Morning Glory, Hummingbird) and lows (Bygones, November of the Heart and I'll admit I picked up her most recent book, Small Town Girl, with trepidation, not knowing what to expect.

Country music superstar Tess McPhail is returning to her hometown of Wintergreen, Missouri, population 1,713, under extreme duress. She has been ordered by her older sisters to take care of their elderly mother during her hip replacement operation. They feel it's time that Tess takes her turn at caring for their mother because Tess has rarely visited her family for the last 17 years.

The minute she drives into town in her black 300ZX with tinted windows, the townspeople know Tess has developed an attitude. And they are absolutely right. Her career has become the main focus of her life, and her childhood in the tiny town seems a distant memory.

Tess has become an arrogant, condescending, smug, albeit talented, millionaire entertainer. Everything now exasperates her: her mother, her mother's tiny, old house, her jealous sister, her hometown and most of all, her mother's next door neighbor, Kenny Kronek.

Kenny was a genuine nerd in high school, complete with a bad haircut and pimples, and Tess delighted in tormenting him. The discovery that he has grown into a handsome man, who is not impressed with Tess (who has been on the cover of Time Magazine, for heaven's sake!) is a major blow to her ego. And, like many superstars, Tess's ego is huge.

But Kenny's genuine concern and unlimited neighborly assistance has made him indispensable to Tess's mother. And Kenny's teenage daughter, Casey, charms Tess with her youthful exuberance and her talented singing voice. So Tess finds herself in close proximity to Kenny and, against her will, becomes intrigued with this genuinely nice man. (That's a compliment, not a put-down.)

When I read Small Town Girl, I felt like I was living it. I know for a fact that the small town portrayed is very true to life (although the one I grew up in had more than one stoplight). And I'm learning that Spencer's portrayal of Tess's loving, but irritating, elderly mother is dead-on.

Don't expect a story about sexy, instantaneous falling in love. This is more of an awakening between two people who discover that the life they thought was perfect wasn't complete. And if you want hot sex --- well, Spencer does more with some kisses while lying in the grass under a starry night then most romance writers can do in an entire chapter.

Tess is a real person who grows and changes, but doesn't even come close to sainthood. In fact, I'm still not sure I would like her. But I know I'd respect her. And Kenny, sweet Kenny -- if he could be cloned and bottled, you could sell a million of him.

I have heard that LaVyrle Spencer may be retiring after this book, and the dedication in the book indicates this might be true. I hope this is inaccurate because Small Town Girl is LaVyrle Spencer at her absolute best.

--Dede Anderson


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