The Romance Readers' Book Club
Julie L. Cannon
Plume, $13.00, 278 pages, Amazon ASIN 0452288991
The Romance Readers' Book Club is more or less a coming of age story. Set in a small Georgia town in the 1970s, it explores the world of Tammi Lynn Elco, who lives with her religious grandmother, but lives for the moments when she can sneak a peak at a romance novel. It's a cute idea, but while it's a pleasant enough read, it's not completely engaging.
Tammi Lynn's rebellion begins one Halloween night when she and her mentally handicapped uncle, Orr, go trick-or-treating (an illicit activity frowned upon by her grandmother). They only get to one house, but Tammi comes away with a bag full of steamy romance novels, all of which are completely cheesy in a 1970s way. Tammi starts reading the first one aloud to Orr, who doesn't really get what's going on but is interested in the parts with horses. Tammi, however, is completely fascinated with the whole thing – especially the sex and romance. She's so thrilled that she wants to share her glorious discovery with others. Impulsively, she invites an acquaintance from school to form a romance readers' club with her. LaDonna reluctantly agrees, and they agree to meet at the home of Tammi's aunt, Minna. When LaDonna shows up, she brings her flamboyant cousin Parks along. Parks is a genuine bad girl who is known to drink, smoke, and do other stuff she shouldn't. Though Tammi is taken aback at Parks' inclusion, she welcomes her enthusiasm. They agree to trade the book around each month, and meet at Minna's house.
Meanwhile, the town is suffering from a severe drought, and many are wondering whether their crops and cattle will make it. Tammi's grandmother is convinced that sin is causing it all, and Tammi wonders whether her romance reading is responsible. Her life is further complicated when her cousin Leon comes to live with them. He's not actually a cousin by blood; he's Tammi's stepfather's nephew. Tammi falls for him in a big way. He's older, handsome, and drives a Jaguar (given to him by her grandmother). Armed with her knowledge of seduction gleaned from romance reading, Tammi sets out to attract Leon. While Leon is interested, he's also determined to be a very different man than his father (a drunk and a womanizer), so Tammi's attempts at seduction garner mixed results.
Throughout all the drama, the romance readers' club is supportive. Monthly discussion topics help Tammi work out her feelings for Leon, and give her new strategies (some seem effective, and others fail spectacularly). As Tammi learns more about who she is and explores her feelings, she is pretty sure her feelings for Leon are the real deal. But he has a mind of his own, and plans that may not fit with Tammi's. She needs to figure out what she really wants out of life, and the romance novels have given her some big ideas and a thirst for travel.
I really liked the idea of this book. The title is perfect. It's a fun setting, and it definitely has a feeling of time and place. It's not unlike Fannie Flagg or Olive Ann Burns – with a little raciness thrown in.
Periodically, we get glimpses of the cheesy romances Tammi's reading, and these were the highlight of the book for me. They're funny, over the top, and more than a little familiar. Though her books are fictional, we've all read stories like them, and it's fun to see the club enjoying them.
So what's not to like? My main issue was that I just couldn't get into Tammi's character. Try as I might, I just couldn't drum up much interest or care either way what happened to her. I found her reactions to the romances – and her quoting of them to Leon – a little silly and unbelievable. I know fifteen year olds can be silly (and definitely dramatic) sometimes; there's one in my house right now. But I wasn't sure Tammi was a person I really wanted to know. I was far more interested in the studious and quiet LaDonna, or Tammi's Aunt Minna. But while they have important roles in the book, it's really all about Tammi. And there's just not much to Tammi.
Even so, I was enjoying the book well enough - until I got to the ending, which made little sense in light of previous events. Not only did it lack closure, it almost just seemed tacked on. I closed the book feeling less favorably disposed than I had just moments before.
That said, it's a cute idea, and some readers might enjoy it for the setting and the romance aspect alone. But for what it's worth, I originally planned to have my (fifteen year old) daughter read this too, so I could see what she thought. After reading it, I didn't really think it was worth the bother…which is pretty telling.
-- Blythe Barnhill
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