|I’m very pessimistic about our world’s future these days for a number of reasons. Fortunately for TRR visitors, this isn’t the forum to address my political concerns, but I will mention one personal Sign of the Looming Apocalypse: Deborah Smith has to self-publish her books. What hope does humanity have when one of the most talented authors of the past 20 years, a woman who has given the world such romantic treasures as A Place to Call Home, When Venus Fell and Sweet Hush, is dropped by one major publisher and advised by others to write erotic vampire novels?
Fortunately Smith had already formed a small publishing company, BelleBooks, with several of her fellow Southern romance novel authors, so she had a venue for her work when this senseless tragedy occurred. Readers who do a little legwork will be able to find and cherish The Crossroads Café, the best romance of 2006. The novel grabs your attention from the opening chapter to the last satisfying sentence. Once you’ve finished, you’ll want to start reading it all over again.
Smith excels at creating tortured but noble heroes, and they don’t come much more tortured and noble than Thomas Mitternich. After losing his wife and son in the devastating events of 9/11, Thomas lost himself in a haze of aimless wandering and excessive alcohol, eventually ending up in the mountains of western North Carolina, where the residents of the town of Crossroads consider him their own personal Yankee oddball. He occasionally buses tables at the Crossroads Café, a diner known throughout the region for its delicious food and its strong-willed owner, Delta Whittlespoon. Normally a no-nonsense individual, Delta is fascinated by beautiful Hollywood actress Cathryn Deen, who happens to be her cousin’s husband’s cousin’s daughter. Even though Cathryn hasn’t set foot in Crossroads for 20 years, Delta considers her to be kin.
So when a horrific car accident leaves the previously flawless Cathryn burned and scarred for life, Delta immediately tries to help, enlisting Thomas’ connections to break through the security that surrounds the actress. Delta is convinced that Cathryn needs to leave behind the cold cruelty of Hollywood and come home to North Carolina to heal. Thomas, who covets the rustic mountain cottage Cathryn inherited from her grandmother, is surprised to realize that there is more to her than a rich, spoiled starlet. But Cathryn, undergoing painful burn treatment and abandoned by Hollywood now that she’s no longer attractive, only wants to be left alone.
Eventually the lure of Delta’s mouthwatering biscuits and the desire to prove herself sends Cathryn to Crossroads. And it’s there that the man who can’t see past his own grief and guilt, and the woman who believes she has nothing left to offer, find their greatest strength through a powerful love. As they help each other heal from their respective scars and reach out to others who need them, Thomas and Cathy learn that the only obstacles to their happiness are their own fears.
The Crossroads Café is Deborah Smith at her best, heartbreakingly beautiful and romantic while also funny as hell. So few alleged romance novels get the romance part right these days. But Smith nails it from page one, creating two memorable, honorable characters who make an immediate connection but are kept apart, not by stupid misunderstandings or plot contrivances, but primarily by internal barriers that they must overcome in order to be together. As the couple takes turns narrating the story, the reader aches for them, weeps with them and ultimately triumphs with them.
Smith’s ability to combine humor and poignancy is evident in the scene in which Thomas falls in love with Cathy over the phone when she bravely makes a groan-inducing pun during her excruciating burn treatment. It shows up again and again in numerous scenes that leave the reader caught between laughter and tears. Many of the secondary characters, including a goat with a predilection for cell phones, add to the humor quotient. Smith has flirted with the idea of becoming a film scriptwriter, and that profession seems like a natural match for her skills. Her written scenes leap off the page and come alive in the reader’s mind.
In addition to being a fine love story, The Crossroads Café makes a few pointed comments about the fickle nature of our culture of beauty and fame. Each section is prefaced by quotes from notable women ranging from Lillian Gish to Roseanne Barr that reflect Cathy’s changing concept of beauty. Food is also a major focus of the book. The movie stars of Cathy’s former world would be horrified by the ingredients in Delta’s signature biscuits, but ultimately food nourishes the soul much more successfully than makeup.
I hope that sales for this novel, either through Belle Books’ website or through online retailers like Amazon, are so high that a major publisher will realize what they are missing and re-sign Deborah Smith. Contrary to conventional publishing wisdom, the era of big romance novels isn’t over. Readers don’t want brainless kooky heroines or ball-busting vampire hunters. We want a good story with unforgettable characters and a love story to touch our hearts. Deborah Smith provides that complete package better than almost any author working today. Her career may be at a crossroads, but The Crossroads Café proves that her talent continues to shine.