Better Than Chocolate

Sheila Roberts
October 2012, Women's Fiction
Mira, $7.99, 400 pages, Amazon ASIN 077831345X

Grade: C-
Sensuality: Subtle

One of my very favorite vacations as a child was a trip we took to Hershey, PA. It was an extremely fun excursion, aided in large part by what we ate while there (take a guess what that was). Disney may claim it is the happiest place on earth but I have a hard time believing Hershey doesn't run a close second. How could a place devoted to chocolate not be happy? I have to ask the same about a book. How can a book devoted to the sugary goodness of chocolate candy not be happy? By focusing - ahem - on the dark side.

Bad luck sometimes comes in spades. Samantha "Sam" Sterling certainly feels like she is swimming in a sea of it...without a life jacket, and while wearing cement shoes. Her step-father has just died. This would be a tragedy in and of itself, but he ran the company that has been in Samantha's family for generations. Ran it into the ground that is. Their bank note - along with a slew of other bills - is due and there is no money in the coffers to pay any of them. Waldo spent what Sweet Dreams Chocolate Company earned as quickly as it came in. Unless Sam can get the bank to work with her, they will loose the corporation that employs most of the town. She will have to ask bank manager Arnie to extend their loan yet again. She has high hopes she can succeed. He has been a friend of the family - and a fan of her beautiful mother - for ages. Then Sam gets hit with the worst news to date. Arnie is no longer manager of the bank.

Blake Preston has been sent to his home town of Icicle Falls to bring that branch of Cascade Mutual Bank back into the black. He hoped his former football hero status would help community relations while he took a hard stance on some bad investments. Whatever good will his past exploits on the field have earned him melts pretty quickly when he has to tell the Queen of Chocolates that he will not be extending her loan yet again. Sam does not take the news well - she snatches the gift basket of welcome home chocolates she had just given him right out of his hands before flouncing out of his office. Lucky for him the view of her going is every bit as sweet as the one of her entering. Sadly, he knows his chances of getting anywhere near her have just flounced out the door with his gift basket. He won't miss the chocolate - he's allergic - but he sure will miss the girl who brought it.

Sam knows it was unprofessional to have a snit in front of her bank manager and snatch away his welcome gift. But she is a desperate woman, backed against the wall by the calamitous state of her family's corporate legacy. When she calls her mother to share Blake's response to her request she is hit with yet more bad news. Seems her step-dad had left his personal finances in as bad a shape as the corporate ones. Not only does her mom not have the money to make the business a loan (Sam's hopes had been pinned on the life insurance policy), but it is likely she will lose the house. Sam refuses to give up. Calling her sisters and arranging a Skype family pow-wow, she urges everyone to think big and come up with a creative plan to save the company. The only plan that has even a remote chance is to blow what little they have on a chocolate festival. If the whole communiy pitches in, they can set up a lovers weekend right in time for Valentine's Day. And what says "I Love You" more than chocolate? The Chamber of Commerce whole heartedly endorses the idea and the planning begins in earnest. But can one weekend really save Sweet Dreams from the nightmare of foreclosure?

The problem I had with this novel is that it couldn't decide what it wanted it to be. The back cover reads like a standard romance novel blurb. However, Blake and Sam barely have a personal conversation until the very last chapter of the book. In fact, I would say they have almost equal page time to the couple who are the obvious set ups for the next book. What little time they did spend together was rarely wasted on pleasantries. This left me wondering why Blake not only continues to champion Sam to his bosses but makes a big, whopping sacrfice for her at the end.

The book would have worked as women's fiction if it had focused on Sam, but it didn't. It shared time between Sam, her sister Cecily, and her mother. That would have been fine had it centered on how they were pulling together to save the firm, but such was not the case. We were given a great many details on the mom's personal life and several details on the potential future match-ups for Cecily, with only the occasional moment devoted to how they were working on the festival. Oddly, I felt like I got to know the mother better than either of the two young women, one of whom was supposed to be the primary character. I had no idea what Sam did in her spare time. I met some of her friends but didn't see her connect deeply with them. She had a cat but there were no real moments when she connected with him either. At one point she mentions he would have loved anyone who could open his cat food. Well, with the attention she gave him I couldn't see how he would view her as anything but a source of food. As mentioned before she had little face time with the hero. The books near complete emphasis on Sam as businesswoman left me with a character whose tenacity I admired but whom I did not really know at all after spending four hundred pages with her.

Blake was an even bigger enigma than Sam. While I knew he was a former football star, I had no real idea of what he had been up to since high school. He is handsome (naturally) but he doesn't seem to have much of a love life, or even a flirting life. His sole focus seems to be Sam, her company, and running into her at various places throughout town. Here again after four hundred pages I knew very little about a primary character.

There were a few things that went right with the book. The festival -especially the Mr. Dreamy contest - was a lot of fun to read about. The author has a pleasant style which makes it easy to keep reading. But the endless problems thrown in Sam's path, her lack of growth as a character, and the ending (which had no reason for being) kept the book from earning a recommendation from me.

-- Maggie Boyd

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