Pandora's Box

Girls Night

Stef Ann Holm
2002, Contemporary Romance
MIRA, $6.50, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 1551669498

Grade: N/A
Sensuality: N/A

There is a staff review of this book as well

Girls Night, Stef Ann Holm's first contemporary romance, features a widowed heroine with two young daughters who is struggling to keep her Washington state coffee shop afloat. Jillene McDermott is too preoccupied with motherhood and overdue bills to think about dating and sex. Then true crime writer Vince Tremonti comes back in town, and the two are immediately attracted to each other. But Jillene isn't sure she can risk her heart on a summer fling, and Vince has professional problems that can't be ignored.

Blythe:  Girls Night is an interesting departure for Stef Ann Holm, who's known for her humorous Americana stories. I've really enjoyed a lot of those, so I have to say I was a little disappointed to see her joining what is beginning to seem like a contemporary stampede. However, after some initial reservations I enjoyed Girls Night. I liked the heroine, and I loved her very realistic little girls. What did you think, Linda?

Linda:  I have enjoyed Holm's books in the past, she never fails to make me LOL and I liked this one too. Harmony is on my keeper shelf. Holm, like Geralyn Dawson, looks to move quite successfully into the contemporary market. I believe Lorraine Heath is also writing a contemporary book (October 2003, editor) and hopefully the move into contemporary will give these authors a larger audience then the 'Americana' or Western market does.

Blythe:  I would love to see an author like Holm - or Heath for that matter - reach a wider audience. Still, well-written American historicals are starting to seem like an endangered species. It used to be when I filled out my AAR Reader Awards ballot at the end of the year I would have several choices for best American Historical or Western, but at this point I am happy if I can come up with one stand-out book.

I did think that this book got off to a bit of a rough start. It wasn't the plot or the characters, but the contemporary voice seemed a little shaky, and there were so many mentions of brand-name products that they almost seemed like paid product placement. I'm all for the inclusion of pop-culture references, and I'd rather see a heroine drink a "coke" than a "cola," but it did seem gratuitous at first. However, as the book got going, Holm seemed to hit her stride. The writing seemed smoother and I really got into the story. I did like Jillene better than Vince, who seemed too commitment-shy to me, but I was satisfied with the way the way things ended up, and I felt he redeemed himself in the end.

Linda:  I agree with you about the product placement, but this seems to be a trend and has bugged me in several recent books. But, this is a minor quibble with this book. I loved Vince and Jillene and thought her daughters, Faye and Claire, were realistic. I came away feeling that they were drawn from Holm's relationship with her own daughters, which was nice. The messy rooms, make-up experimentation and their secret "Barbie" play was great. I liked Jillene a lot and admired her grit, determination and mothering skills. I liked Vince, he did have some commitment problems, but he was so sweet and sexy. I loved Vince's relationship with his father Al. Al's romance was also wonderful, it was so sweet that it just left you feeling good.

Blythe:  Al was awfully cute, wasn't he? I thought his romance was a fun addition to the book.

I think with Vince I would have liked to see him confide in Jillene earlier about the problems he was having. He really left her in the dark, especially at the end. But he ended up being a nice guy after all, so I was willing to cut him a little slack. But I think I've filled my quota of commitment-phobic heroes for the year. Jillene, with her plans for her coffee shop and determination to be a great mom for her girls, was a lot more accessible.

Linda:  I think that Vince's problems were so traumatic and horrifying to him that he was unable to confide in anyone other then his father. I loved the scene when he confided in Al. The relationship between father and son was very believable and I imagine everyone wishes that they had a dad like Al.

I really liked Jillene a lot, too. Her adjustment to her husband's death and the financial mess he had left her in was very realistically portrayed. Changing from a financially affluent stay-at-home mom to a successful business woman is not easy and I thought Holm portrayed the difficulties much more accurately than Nora Roberts did in Dance Upon the Air and other recent romances.

Blythe:  I think you're right about that. A lot of heroines just seem to have money fall into their laps, or they find a cottage somewhere for next to nothing. But I've known women who lost husbands who weren't financially prepared for that to happen, and I think Jillene's life was fairly realistic. I don't think it's easy for a small business to succeed, especially on a relatively small island. But I enjoyed the way Holm portrayed the community - wackos and all.

Linda:  Yes, the book's characters were great. Holm's got a terrific sense of humor and it was very much on display; I giggled alot over Vince and Jillene's repartee. And Jillene's daughters' Barbie videos were a stitch too. Holm has a deft touch that mixes the humorous with the poignant, which isn't easy. When the girls were writing the personal ad for their mom and got to the reason why Faye included that potential dates should have big feet, I was laughing all the while tearing up. Quite a trick to pull off, but Holm's writing made it work.

Blythe:  I think one thing that made her secondary characters work was those little details. Al lining up all the shampoo in his barber shop "just so" because he wanted to impress Ianella - and the girls taking all the cotton balls so the Barbies could be pregnant. I am currently very low on tissues because of a Beanie Baby wedding, so I could really relate to this. As much as I liked Jillene, I really think those girls were my favorite thing about the book.

Linda:  I loved Jillene's relationship with the girls and loved the fact that Holm didn't make them too perfect or too bratty.

You could find their messy rooms all cross America; sometimes I felt like wearing hip waders into my boys' rooms, and my daughter wasn't much neater. You are right about the secondary characters having depth to them, Holm never resorts to stereotypical actions by them either. The meeting between Connie and Jillene towards book's end is so good! Holm takes care of the small details and I was even giggling at the postscript to the book.

This was a really enjoyable book and I hope that it will bring Holm a larger audience, who might then search out her Americana backlist.

Blythe:  I hope it does too. While I did have a few problems with the book, on the whole I enjoyed it and would recommend it, especially for fans of humorous contemporaries. Although I hate to see Holm leave Americana behind, I liked this book enough to follow her and keep up with her contemporary books. What's up for next month, Linda?

Linda:  Next month we are reading Getting Her Man by Michelle Albert aka Michelle Jerott. Jerott is another new-to-me author, but I do have several of her romantic suspense books in my tbr pile.

Blythe:  She's new to me as well, but she's gotten some favorable reviews from AAR in the past, and I'm curious to see whether I'll like her. See you next month.

LLB: Speaking of authors moving into the contemporary arena from the historical arena, last week I had the chance to ask Holm about this very thing. Her very interesting answer will appear in the September 15 At the Back Fence.

--Blythe Barnhill and Linda Hurst, for

-- Pandora's Box

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