Wendy: If you won the lottery, you’d…quit your job? Buy the car of your dreams, something sleek and red? Tell the nice fellow in the Saks’ shoe department that you want those obscenely expensive shoes—the ones you’ve heretofore not dared to breathe on—in every color they come in? Finally pay off your students loans? Be the sort of person who travels at the drop of a hat, is willing to pay scalper prices for front row center tickets, is mentioned in the paper for their philanthropy? In short, would you leave your old life behind for a new one?
Kathleen Long’s heroine from Cherry on Top, Cherry Harte, would. Or, at least she tries to. When Cherry and her sister Liz win millions in an interstate lottery, the sisters leave New Jersey for Florida. In their rearview mirror is the fiancé who left Cherry at the alter, their mother who’s serving time for embezzlement, and the memories of their con artist father. And ahead of them, or at least Cherry hopes, a lifetime membership in the Women’s League, respectability, and a place where no one knows their family.
It isn’t long before a monkey wrench—or in this case, a grease monkey—is thrown into Cherry’s plans. Luke Chance is an auto mechanic and former reporter who knows a story lurks under Cherry’s Women’s League regimented beige suit and sensible shoes. The attraction between the two sparks and flares immediately despite Luke’s position that money changes people and Cherry’s life plan not including the distraction of man. The two square off over the Framingham Estate—property to be awarded by county commissioners for a civic project. Cherry financially backs a proposed horticulture project and Luke devotes his time and heart to an after school youth program. In the process, they both need to decide what part their pasts will play in their presents and futures.
Cherry on Top begins with an exciting premise: changing one’s luck. It then quickly dissolves into a romance between archetypes. Luke was burned by a woman with money and is therefore distrustful of Cherry. Cherry wants so badly to escape her past that she’s willing to be a person she’s not and deny what truly makes her happy in her pursuit of a hollow brass ring. Cherry and Luke are stubborn and slow to come together, seeming to always take two steps back for every one forward. The romance would have succeeded – and by extension, the novel itself – if Long hadn’t clung to formula. There is much creativity here, but it is muddled in too-easy cliché.
Between Fran (the girls’ mother) Harte’s cooking from behind bars segment for the Food Network, to Moose the three feet tall “reimbursement specialist”, to Lucky, Cherry’s pink poodle so colored because of his frequent tomato juice bathes after skunk encounters (though orange seems more likely après tomato color), Cherry on Top clearly aspires to farce. Unfortunately, Cherry’s consistently poor choices do not fall in line with the over the top tone set by the action, rather her choices come off as unintelligent and poorly motivated when Long stacks the deck against her heroine. From the beginning Cherry knows that her Women’s League horticulture project will only succeed at the expense of a youth program. And yet, with such a clear delineation of values in front of her—children are more important than plants—Cherry continues to back the Women’s League project. Such action creates a disconnect between reader and heroine that is never quite overcome.
Cherry on Top is light, quickly paced fare; entertainment that seeks nothing more than to entertain. The cast of characters is large, if too frequently one dimensional, heavily playing on formula (the society rich bitch, the man without money who dismisses all people with money, the meddlesome and matchmaking grandfather, the quirky artist who speaks of himself in third person) yet readable nonetheless. That said, the novel never is able to reach beyond the familiar and take the risks that would have made this romance noteworthy.
HelenKay: There is one time when a bride being left at the altar is a good thing – in a romance novel. In real life, the situation results in tears and anger, even bodily harm and damaged personal property. In romanceland, getting dumped while wearing a big white dress virtually assures the heroine of finding happiness and the man of her dreams. She just has to be cast aside by Mr. Wrong in order to get to Mr. Right.
With her wedding in shambles, Cherry Harte hits it big. Really big. The woman named after a symbol on a slot machine wins a fortune playing the lottery. With piles of cash in the bank and a new Jaguar under her butt, Cherry and her sister Liz take off from New Jersey for Mystic Beach, Florida. The plan is to leave behind her jailbird mother and wandering father, and start a new life in a huge house. All she has to do is invent a family history, one that ignores the various criminal acts of her parents, and make a grab for prestige.
In what appears to be an uncharacteristic move on Cherry’s part, she searches for acceptance by trying to join the Women’s League – a group of wealthy women more concerned about horticultural than kids in the community and led by a stereotypical shallow rich girl. Cherry is desperate to fit in and shed the past handed down by her parents. This results in a change of wardrobe from cute to dowdy and an accompanying change in hair color to mousy. She is willing to buy her way into the grown-up mean girls’ club, even though doing so goes against everything she believes in.
Enter Luke Chance. Thanks to a career-ending scandal, he is now a mechanic instead of a reporter. He’s come back home to live near his grandfather (gramps). His main goal is to find a new home for a youth center in Mystic Beach. The perfect location for him also happens to be the perfect location for the horticultural center the Women’s League wants. Cherry and Luke line up on different sides of the turf battle, but their attraction keeps pushing them together.
Added to the mix is the return of Cherry’s father, a strange artist working in her house, a visit from Cherry’s former fiancee and a threat from a casino boss. Yes, a lack of action is not a problem here. Holding all of the subplots together and having them be relevant to the storyline is. Long does a good job of balancing eccentric characters, but the story does stretch into the "one thing too many" area when dealing with the debt owed to a mysterious bad guy and a brief sidetrack near the end of the book regarding the youth center. The extras do not add anything to the story. The good news is that they do not take away from it either.
The attraction between Luke and Cherry is believable. Cherry’s rabid desire to belong to this particular group is not always easy to fathom. But this dichotomy is part of what makes Cherry all the more human. She is insecure and infinitely likable. And Luke works as her perfect match. He is strong, sexy and decent. His anti-wealth stance is a bit of a stretch, but his backstory helps to make his anger true to his character. As a couple they do more of a slow burn than a sizzle, but readers will want want to see them together and easily cheer them on.
Cherry On Top is a light and enjoyable tale. Words like "spunky" and "fun" and "romp" come to mind when reading this one. The pacing is fast and even. The tone is humorous, with a few heavier moments that do not detract from the overall breezy feel of the plot. The book doesn’t address the world’s problems or break new ground but, really, it doesn’t pretend that this is its goal. Its aim is fun and flirty. On that level, it succeeds.
HelenKay’s Question: I admit I was more than a little hesitant about reading this one. Nothing against Kathleen Long or her writing, the cover and title just didn’t appeal to me. You had other ideas. As a reader, what attracted you to this one – cover, title, back cover copy or something else? And, did the cover match the book inside?
Wendy’s Response: I’ll say categorizing your feelings about including this title as “more than a little hesitant,” is an understatement of epic proportions and leave it at that.
Romance titles are so often disposable and unrelated to the story, that I seldom pay attention to them; so, it wasn’t the title. I didn’t—and still haven’t—read the back cover copy; so, no to that too. The cover design, while more pleasing to my eye than anything the might suggest 80s romance isn’t particularly attractive; so, that’s three strikes.
I went to Kathleen Long’s website and read an excerpt from the first chapter. The setup was cute and humorous, didn’t seem like murder and mayhem would soon ensue, and, frankly, I didn’t find Long’s writing to be eye-roll worthy. The latter is the ultimate litmus test, and she passed.
If the pepto-bismol pink cover with the slightly Asian font and a tuxedoed man perched on a Sundae has anything to do with this story, I missed it.
HelenKay’s Final Thoughts: A fast and easy read with a bizarre cast of characters. You won’t always understand them, but they will make you smile. Recommended.
Wendy’s Final Thoughts: Cherry on Top has a great premise, but a lackluster heroine.