HelenKay: Reunion romances walk a fine line between engaging and annoying. Readers will abandon some measure of common sense in favor of the promise of love triumphing over time and distance. The ultimate romantic notion is in believing people can hold on to a forever-kind-of-love through adversity, family differences and difficulties tearing them apart, only to find each other again years later and still feel that tug and pull. The dangerous ground comes with whatever the awful “it” was that ripped the couple apart. Make it illusory or easy to resolve and – poof – the reader disappears. Lani Diane Rich’s storytelling avoids the annoyance trap in The Comeback Kiss with believable motivations and histories for her heroine and hero. Frankly, even if Rich had faltered in this aspect, most would forgive her thanks to the other strengths of the story, including a lovable hero, humorous dialog and strong suspense thread.
Tessa Scuderi lost her mother, her mother’s business, her virginity, the love of her life and her treasured car all in one night ten years ago. Then a teen herself, Tessa took up the task of caring for her younger sister, Izzy, and fought a three-year battle for the right to raise Izzy on her own. Now older, wiser and more boring, Tessa holds down a job and rules the house with a general inflexibility as she continues to fight off the social worker determined to take Izzy from her.
Then Dermot Finnegan (Finn) comes back to town. His plan is to dump the previously stolen treasured car (and said location of the virgin de-flowering) at Tessa’s house then sneak back out of town. But, and there’s always a but, Finn stops to rescue animals trapped in a mysterious fire. The move makes him a hero. Or, really, a bigger hero. Despite leaving town years earlier as a troublemaker and estranged from his straightlaced brother and the uncle who raised him, the town views him as a hero. The citizens of Lucy’s Lake also think Finn is a stable member of society and a private investigator. Neither is true. Finn is many things – bird thief, wanderer and general rule breaker. Not a guy who thinks of others first. Then he kisses Tessa and ends up agreeing to investigate the death of Izzy and Tessa’s mother and starts looking like a hero after all.
One of the clever twists here – the special something that sets this plot apart from others – is the somewhat arrested development of Finn. He is not a larger-than-life hero. He’s not the bold, overly muscled type or the brilliant, over-achiever type either. Where Tessa went into fast forward maturity mode as a result of her mother’s deadly car accident while fleeing a fire, Finn mostly stood still. He continued his antics and lifestyle. Travel around completing odd jobs that sometimes required him to engage in less than legal activities. In general, he left town convinced he didn’t deserve Tessa or much of anything else either. And little has changed in the intervening years. When he steps back into Tessa’s life and gets dragged deeper into the investigation and into the community, his carefree and no-strings existence changes.
Ten years is a long time to nurture a teenage love. A zing reappears between Finn and Tessa almost immediately upon seeing each again. The intensity in light of the ten-year gap strains reality a bit. However, descriptions of the lives led by Finn and Tessa during the delay help to make the timing work. Finn did not spend the years moping. He regrets leaving Tessa the way he did and wants to make amends, which provides a glimpse into a maturity he otherwise doesn’t show off, but he lived his life. Tessa actually did engage in some pining, but she’s too busy being grown-up to see it.
There is a serious undertone to the storylines. Murdered mothers, arson and foster homes aren’t the usual romantic comedy issues. Despite the potential gravity of the subject matter, the story is not heavy. The banter between Finn and Tessa – between Finn and everyone, actually – is clever and often humorous. The mystery is of the cozy variety and is tightly wrapped up with the romance. Much of the action involves unraveling the truth behind the fires that happened in the past. This allows the darker portion of the story to occur off stage and not weigh down the enjoyable romance.
Readers of Rich’s previous title Maybe Baby should recognize Finn and a few other secondary players here. However, The Comeback Kiss stands alone. New readers will not have any difficulty following along. Rich wraps up the strings in an ending that may feel like too much of an ah-hah moment for some, but it fits with the overall tone of the book. The result is a smile-on-your-face charmer with more depth than your typical light romance. One that leaves open the question of what happens to Joe, Finn’s much more serious brother. Joe’s the “good” one. Rich put a little Joe in Finn then leaves readers wondering if there’s a little Finn in Joe, too. Maybe the next book will answer that question.
Wendy: Critics of genre fiction often point to its palatability as proof of its lack of artistry, as though fiction that seeks solely to entertain requires little or no skill. To further fuel critics, genre fiction, when done well, appears to be the most effortless of endeavors. It looks easy, therefore it must be easy. The greatest argument against this might be the anemic number of authors who pull off the no-sweat factor and manage to appeal to a mass audience. There aren’t that many of them, because making it look easy, isn’t as easy as it would seem. To the sacred few, it’s time to add another: Lani Diane Rich.
Rich’s latest, The Comeback Kiss, is deceptively effortless. The story unfolds with a grace that would seem to indicate that the book was never labored over, or that any larger mechanisms are at work. Of course there are, as evidenced by Rich’s intricately tied together cast, measured out turning points, and steady rise of conflict.
As soon as Tessa Scuderi sees the VW Thing parked in front of her house, she knows the quiet, fly-under-the-radar existence she’s perfected is about to be up-ended. The reappearance of the Thing, the car that got Tessa around as a teenager, can only mean one thing: Dermot “Finn” Finnegan, the liberator of both her virginity and her automobile has returned. The trouble is, Tessa has worked hard over the last ten years to atone for her wild child past. As it turns out, some of that atonement has come in the form of lies, lies Finn’s presence could unravel. Tessa has more than simply a reputation riding on her falsehoods, her younger sister’s welfare is at stake. The one thing Tessa needs is for Finn to leave town as stealthily as he left it ten years ago, never mind that he owes her some answers about his first departure, or that he’s the only man she’s ever felt that certain zing with, she wants him gone.
For his part, Finn (likely the only hero in romance to have “reformed bird thief” on his résumé) is happy to leave the car, in hopes the act of returning it will ease his conscience. He would be just as happy to leave town before anyone sees him and remembers his destructive—if colorful—teen years. Before Fin can secure a ride, the town’s pet store catches fire with no one but Finn around to save the animals inside. It is probably more poetic justice than irony that Finn is held up in the one place he doesn’t want to be by saving the types of animals he used to fence.
Rich’s voice is humorous, her dialog witty. Many authors can claim those attributes, but Rich combines her amusing voice with funny setups that are mired in tragedy. A boyfriend who relieves his girlfriend of her virginity and then her VW Thing is a funny anecdote…it’s also really horrible. Just as a pet thief who is compelled to rescue trapped pets is oddly comical, until it’s revealed that arson is behind the pet store fire.
Despite the depravity of arson, the tone stays light when the plot turns to the investigation. Tessa’s younger sister Izzy believes their mother’s death (coincidentally on the same night Finn left Tessa) wasn’t an accident, as it had been ruled, but that the event is connected with the pet store fire as well as other fires in town. Izzy confides in Finn, giving him both a reason to stay in town and a reason to be around Tessa.
Beyond the usual hero and heroine points of view, most of the large cast of characters are tapped for scenes told in their perspective. Rich handles this with aplomb too and the multiple points of view work because each character’s insight furthers and adds to the unfolding story. Even Wallace, a dog Finn rescues, gets his two cents in. Wallace doesn’t talk, but there may, or may not be, a little dog to human telepathy happening. More likely, Wallace’s lines that are “heard” in Finn’s head (and once by Tessa) are manifestations of the characters’ inner monologue. A safe way for them to think about what they are afraid to voice. Or, let’s hope that’s Wallace’s purpose.
Rich writes with a humor that is reminiscent of Jennifer Cruise, but in a voice that is all her own; she is an engaging story teller who understands the knife’s edge decisions of when to reveal and, more importantly, when not to. The Comeback Kiss accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: it entertains.
HelenKay’s Question for Wendy: In my view, The Comeback Kiss does an impressive job of telegraphing the tone of the book through the cover, back blurb and even the About The Author note at the end. Everything works together. All say flirty, charming and fun. For the last few years, in terms of indicating a book’s comedic edge publishers ignored the subtle hint route and went for the big, flashing sign in the form of cartoonish covers. Any preference?
Wendy’s Answer: I always prefer subtlety to being hit over the head. The overly cartoonish covers miss with me. I feel like: if they are actually representing the fiction inside, then, no thank you. And, if they aren’t accurately representing it, then what is the tone of that book? Either way they’ve lost me. I really like the packaging of The Comeback Kiss because it suggests what is to be expected while leaving that suggestion wide open without narrowly defining what will be found between the covers.
HelenKay’s Final Thought: Witty and smart reunited lovers story.
Wendy’s Final Thought: The Comeback Kiss is a start to finish delight.
You can visit Lani here and purchase this book here and here.