Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie

welcome to temptation hb.jpgWhen I signed on to Paperback Reader, I inserted a clause in my agreement to the effect that there would be a team review of Welcome To Temptation during my first year of employment. In retrospect, I probably should have gone for the signing bonus. You live, you learn.

So, what with one thing and the other, a year passed, but the dream remained alive (also, I forgot to insert language about what would happen if said review failed to materialize). And…here it is. A review of Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie. It should probably go without saying, but there is not a single unbiased word in the lengthy discussion Wendy and I had. We didn’t even attempt to fake impartiality. Had someone (name withheld, but initials are HK) kept her promise to read with us, maybe things would be different. We’ll never know, will we?

Welcome to Temptation is the story of a girl, her family, and her dog. Or maybe it’s the story of a boy, his town’s water tower, and his pool table. Sophie Dempsey comes to Temptation with her sister Amy to film a screen test for D-list movie star, Clea Whipple. Phineas Tucker, mayor of Temptation (three generations and counting), learns that there might be loose women (and possibly a porn flick being produced) out at the Whipple farm. Phin isn’t opposed to loose women on principle — too bad because Sophie’s wound so tight with nerves, she might snap.

Which means, yes, porn is happening, but only the vanilla kind, and Sophie is sure she’s going to be thrown out town pronto. What happens next? Political maneuvering, phallic, flesh-colored water towers, family strife, thwarted ambition, con games, blackmail, apparent murder, softball games, and pool. Not necessarily in that order. Suffice to say that a lot of paint was sacrificed in the making of this story.

What? You want a detailed, linear synopsis? Better that you read the book. But read our review first. We gush.

“Nothing but good times ahead.”
k2: You know, this is harder than you’d think, talking about Welcome to Temptation. It’s a book I pick up whenever I need to be reminded that all is still right in the world. How a book that opens with a car crash, veers into censorship, discusses down-and-dirty politics, and turns on a murder makes me feel good is hard to explain. I just love this book, so much so that I have a copy just for loaning to people who need to know the magic that is this book. Sure, I keep rebuying my loaner copy, because you know how people accidentally forget to give good books back…
Let’s begin at the beginning. As Sophie and Amy Dempsey cruise into Temptation, they are greeted with two memorable sights. The first is a motley collection of signs, including the rusted, aged message of welcome from Mayor Phineas T. Tucker — whom they immediately assume isn’t having sex, not if the sign is any indicator of age — and the second is the town’s flesh-colored water tower — rising above the landscape like a giant penis. As Sophie notes, you don’t accidentally paint a water tower that color. Does this tell us everything and more about the bucolic town of Temptation?
wd: I’m giddy to finally have this discussion underway. Like you, Welcome to Temptation makes me cheerful even in the midst of not so cheerful plot points. The characters often treat one another as badly as humans do and even still, I smile through the whole thing, for every page. I just love it. I do wish our partner in crime, HelenKay, had been able to join us for this (she was asked, but she is busy). So many times she and I have chatted about one book or another and I’ve wanted to refer to Welcome To Temptation as an example of perfection for subtext in dialogue, or pacing, or whatever, but HK hasn’t yet read, so the analogy is lost. We really need to make forcing this title on her our top priority.
A flesh colored water tower rising through the trees of Temptation is a good thing. Actually, I think the verb Crusie always uses in combination with the water tower is “thrusting.” That gets right to the point, doesn’t it? I’ve always found that phallic tower to be rather emblematic of the town’s (and the characters’) futility and repression and sexuality. Or, perhaps that’s repression of their sexuality. It’s just a water tower, no matter what color it’s painted, but it’s sexualized by everyone from Sophie to Stephen Garvey — or as Sophie thinks of him as the “pillar of the community” (which sounds phallic to me as well) — to Phin, who, after the tower is painted bright red, refers to it as “the Whore of Babylon.” The tower comes up again and again throughout the story, in its various incarnations, always reinforcing how important sex is to the fabric of this story.
Let’s get that out immediately: sex is very important to Welcome to Temptation. As you point out, in the book’s opening pages Amy and Sophie decide that Phineas T. Tucker is not having sex, only to meet him and conclude that he is and he could have more with either of them. From there, it’s only a matter of time before everyone falls, in one way or another. Clea Whipple’s screen test fairly quickly becomes porn (ok, it quickly comes to have graphic sexual content, define porn as you will). The secondary characters are having sex (or wanting to have sex) with all the wrong people: Clea with her old, but now married, boyfriend Frank Lutz; then Clea with Frank’s son Rob; Frank’s wife Georgia gets a bit too cozy with Clea’s estranged husband Zane Black; Wes has a serious, but noble, case of the hots for Amy; and, honestly, I’m very glad the extent of Hildy and Ed’s porn watching isn’t delved into. Of course, most excitingly and deliciously, Sophie and Phin enter into a relationship that is purely based on no-strings-attached sex. At the moment, romance is rife with couples who begin as sex-without-commitment, but seldom do other characters and other stories enter into this sort of non-relationship with the grace that Phin and Sophie do. Phin says: “Come here and let me give you an orgasm you don’t have to work for,” and every time I read it, I think: oh, that was absolutely the right thing to say. Crusie’s dialog is always good, but I think in Welcome To Temptation she is particularly razor sharp and sparkling. Does the dialog make this book?
k2: Oh, thank you very much for putting the thought of Hildy and Ed watching porn into my head. Now I’m going to have nightmares. I suppose I should be thankful that HK isn’t taking part — she’d actually want to explore that notion…
This book is totally, completely, and unabashedly about sex: the good, the bad, the weird, and the fact that Americans have serious problems with something so, well, natural. Two lines from the book come to mind immediately, both about Virginia Garvey, wife of the Pillar. The first is Sophie’s first coherent though about Stephen; the second is at a Council meeting:

If I was married to you, I’d keep my knees together, too.”
“Phin spared a brief thought as to what it must be like to be married to Virginia if she thought nudity was punishable by death…”

In many ways having sex — or not having it (one thinks of a certain seduction scene in a bar gone horribly awry) — propels this story. It is sex, in several forms, that drives Clea Whipple into the world of the Dempseys. It is sex that forms Sophie’s first impression of our beloved Phin…she’s already had a bad experience with another town’s Phin. It is even sex that drives Rachel, the daughter of Stephen and Virginia Garvey, to pick up her gumption and find her own destiny. In so many ways, the primary characters (Must. Ignore. Images. Of. Ed. And. Hildy.) are tied together by their sexual acts — even Wes and Amy, though theirs is non-consummated. No fault of Wes’s.
But you asked a real question. Dialogue. When I grow up, I want to write dialogue like Jennifer Crusie. I am enamored of movies from the thirties and forties where characters played by actors like Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy and Mae West toss off bon mots like artillery fire. I love listening to clever people spar with words (makes me jealous as I’m always thinking of what I should have said long after it should have been said). One way that Crusie brings this immediacy to the page is stylistic — I’ve heard some readers (probably really writers who were taught differently) say her style irritates them, but I think it perfectly connotes the rapid-fire pacing of the dialogue:

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, I’ll give you the damn paint” Stephen said, and Phin said, “Thank you, Stephen, we accept. Now if there’s nothing else–”

Ordinarily, the dialogue would be broken into two separate paragraphs, but Crusie’s habit of shoving two speakers into the same, well, heck, sentence, makes it all snap. But even the conventional (in a manner of speaking) dialogue zings (am I going to end up retyping this whole book?):

Sophie came out on the porch [after Phin tells her she’s too dumb to live]. “You still here? I thought you’d have gone back to the smart people by now. Davy, Wes wants us.”
Phin looked at the bruise on her forehead and the misery in her eyes and felt like hell. “You are not allowed to leave the house again until you get your driver’s license.”
“I already have a driver’s license.”
“That’s what you think,” Phin said, turning to stare back across the yard. “I’m making Wes take it.”
Davy stood up. “Don’t scare the mayor again,” he told his sister and went inside.

That’s one of my favorite little bits from the story. The driver’s license schtick has been threaded through the whole book and then there’s the punch line. And Davy has been butting heads with Phin because Davy, for all his flaws (or should I say lovable flaws?), will do anything to protect Sophie, yet here he is, acknowledging that Phin is the man. And Phin is realizing this is a battle he lost a long time ago.
Speaking of Phin (and I want to, I want to), as you know, I recently read Bet Me, and, mid-way through, had an epiphany. We (okay, me) often focus on Crusie’s treatment of women and their friendships and relationships. But I realized that she’s also great at guy friendships. Her heroes have friends — real, genuine guy friends who talk about sex and play pool and worry about looking cool in front of women. When we reviewed Don’t Look Down, one topic we discussed was the “guyness” that Bob Mayer brought to Crusie’s writing, but, looking back, I think elements of it have always been there. You?
wd: I must admit that the first time I read Crusie, I was severely put off by her dialog format. Her habit of squishing two characters’ dialog together was, exactly as you point out, not what I had been taught and I was irked at her for having independent thought. What I’ve since come to understand is that, a writer can do anything, even those you should never admonishments, if they do it well. There is, of course, a huge gap between the use of something and the success of it, but Crusie succeeds with this. And, I believe her choice in formatting is as important to the pacing of her dialog as the zinging of the words.
I love that scene on the porch about the driver’s license. Well, it’s not really about the license, but it is the moment we know Phin loves Sophie (even if those exact words haven’t quite coalesced for him).
It’s interesting to me that you should bring up Phin’s “guyness” because I spent a lot of time during this reread pondering that very topic. Crusie’s men strike me as very male, in a down-to-earth way. There is a realness to them (and yes, that element existed prior to Mayer) that is striking for its subtlety. I think a lot of romance authors imbue their men with over-the-top masculinity: they are ruthless rulers; they carry guns; they kill people; they have sex with everything that moves; they are toweringly large. Phin isn’t, or doesn’t do, any of those things and yet he is top to bottom a guy: he likes good liquor; is drawn to women who are “the devil’s candy”; he’s particular about his cotton shirts; he loves his kid — though manages not to mention her in the pursuit of getting laid; he loves his pool table too much to ruin the felt by having sex on it; he says things to Sophie like: “Come on, Sophie. I’ve had a lousy day. Fuck me.”; he hates being mayor but he refuses to lose the job to Stephen Garvey. I think all of that speaks to his guyness more eloquently than had Crusie chosen to make Phin the standard issue hard-nosed, womanizer hero. He is, as you so eloquently said of Crusie’s heroes in our discussion of Anyone but You, a “disaffected patrician.” So what is Sophie?
k2: Here’s how pathetic I am: I didn’t even notice that Crusie was doing dialogue “wrong” until someone pointed it out to me. Somehow it fit so perfectly with the rhythm in my head that it made perfect sense. Once I became aware of it, I think it was a bit of epiphany — rules can be broken without the world falling off its axis. Though it’s probably not the best analogy, one should recall that Pablo Picasso knew the “rules” of classical drawing and painting…he simply chose to paint what he saw.
If Phin is a disaffected patrician, then Sophie is a…rebel! She’s the straight arrow Dempsey who wants the straight arrow life. She’s continually fighting her natural instinct to be a little bit bent because she doesn’t want to be like the rest of her family, who thrive on crookery and connery and flouting the law whenever and however possible. The Dempseys love the rush that comes from living outside the law.
But Sophie doesn’t. It’s a lovely twist (one you also see a bit in Jayne Anne Krentz’s Absolutely, Positively…which I’m sure you’re going to read some day). But even as Sophie rebels against the family tradition, she’s learning to accept that her Dempsey blood has its advantages — tell me that her decision at the end of the book isn’t the perfect blend of Sophie’s do-good instinct and her Dempsey genes.
Let’s talk secondary characters for a moment. I think my favorite is Rachel Garvey, the 20-year old daughter of Stephen and Virginia. Her parents want her to marry Phin, Phin’s mother wants him to marry her…and Phin thinks she’s far too young and lousy at pool, while Rachel just wants to get out of the hell out of Temptation. I think her laser-sharp focus on the goal was incredibly well-done, and, given the way her parents think, the fact that she ended up living in California (with gardeners!) with Leo the porn king just made me laugh. Am I over-romanticizing Rachel? And what of other secondary characters in this book?
wd: Yes, Sophie daughter-of-a-thousand-felons has the perfect end book epiphany. It’s lovely for the rightness of it and the fact that it isn’t obviously coming. I dig Sophie in a I’d-like-to-be-friends-with-her kind of way and, I realize now, I don’t feel that way about any other heroines. There is a realness to Sophie that appeals to me. And, a lack of pretence, like the first time she and Phin are on the dock and she doesn’t remember her significant other until afterward. I think what I expect from heroines in that situation is for them to haughtily bring up the boyfriend they don’t care about as a barrier to put between themselves and the hero. Sophie’s way leads her into the heart of conflict. Gotta love that.
Rachel Garvey. My feelings for Rachel vacillate with every read of the book. Sometimes I feel that she’s just great and other times that she’s too self aware (and too spot on with that awareness) to convincingly be twenty. Rachel is people smart and I don’t know where it comes from because she didn’t inherit that skill. All the characters in Welcome to Temptation, the main and the secondary, can rather neatly be broken down between those that are self aware and people smart: Sophie, Phin, Wes, Amy, Rachel, Leo, Davy, Hildy, Ed, Liz; and those that aren’t: Clea, Frank, Georgia, Stephen, Virginia, Zane, Rob. (Did I forget anyone?) Anyway, growing up with Stephen and Virginia Garvey, it’s a wonder to me that Rachel can put one foot in front of the other much less plan, what turns out to be, a successful escape. My shifting feelings and lack of understanding aside, I like Rachel. I feel for her that she’s stuck with the parents she is, weeding the same patch of earth every summer, being drug along to a future she wants no part of. And likewise, I love that she gets the future she wants, the one she worked to achieve.
A character that I didn’t initially like, but have grown to love is Dillie Tucker, Phin’s daughter. At first I saw her as a bit too on the ball for a kid. Then, I began to understand that Dillie is a parrot. At her most kid-like she parrots Jamie Barclay. At her most pretentious she parrots her grandmother Liz. She even quickly comes to parrot Sophie like when she tells Amy: “Don’t try that on me,” Dillie said. “I’m a pro.” And you, are you anti-kid-in-a-romance? And what, specifically, do you think of Dillie?
k2: I think that Rachel gets her focus from, well, Stephen. He’s very much into achieving his goals, and she sees how he keeps trying. And she sees how he screws up. She doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of her parents, so pays very close attention. Plus she’s a bit of a wild thing, no? [wd: Great point about Stephen’s influence.]
I am, generally, anti-kid-in-romance. Mostly because romance novel kids are far too cute, too precious, and too clean for my taste. I like kids who climb trees, do bad things for no good reason, and talk back. And, you know, I don’t like using kids to push the sentimentality button. So often romance kids are used to emotionally manipulate the reader, and I hate being manipulated. Dillie is very much a kid who is trying to be a grown-up — I think you hit the nail on the head with the “parrot” idea. She’s at an age where she’s testing and discarding personalities while trying to figure out boundaries. And, yes, she’s decided she wants a mother. Jamie Barclay, after all, has one, so Dillie, the parrot, wants one, too (one senses that Jamie Barclay already has a father in residence because Dillie doesn’t suggest Mrs. Barclay as a potential mother — at least as far as I recall).
One worries that future Dillie will decide to parrot her uncle Davy. That could be interesting.
There is one little tidbit that flows through the story that I wanted to mention: Julie Ann and the Bear. It starts out as a cute little story, but then takes on increasing importance. Tell me, the first time you read this book, were you doing a little bit of “Huh?” when it came to Julie Ann?
wd: Wow, your “Huh?” completely captures my first reaction. I don’t really like to admit to being anything less than an astute reader, but the first time around when Phin and Sophie were alone in the moonlight and Phin related the story of the heartbroken Julie Ann disappearing into the forest and, to hear Phin tell it, is eaten by the Bear, I didn’t pay that much attention because, well, good stuff was on the horizon. The book is sex soaked, and I do have my priorities. That’s what later led to the “Huh?”
It’s sweet and endearing that Phin and Sophie have this Appalachia folklore to liken to themselves. Pet names in romances are very appealing to me (it’s a weakness, don’t mock me), and I especially like the use here because Julie Ann and Bear have significance beyond the more ordinary “sweetness” or the like. As you point out, Julie Ann and the Bear is a tidbit that surfaces throughout a plot full of major happenings. What fascinates me most about this bit of folklore is that Crusie rewrites the ending of Julie Ann’s story, so that, what had been a cautionary tale, is recast to be a tale of female empowerment (Julie Ann gets the Bear). It’s such a tiny thing, but it carries such a big message. And it reinforces the very subtle, well, “girl power” theme that runs throughout.
Now, there is a huge happening, a major plot point that we have manage to ignore: Zane Black’s death. On top of everything else, Welcome to Temptation is a murder mystery. And, I think, a very credible one at that. Every person in town has reason to want Zane dead. Zane stole money from Clea, he’s wants the movie the girls are making shut down and he manages to dig up dirt on everyone in the hopes of blackmailing the populace into bending to his will. I’ve always thought Georgia Lutz had the most motivation to kill Zane because of his is very public and very caustic remark about her bedroom skills: “Hell, Georgia, even Jell-O moves when you eat it.” Yikes. What’s truly great about the mystery of Zane’s death is a reader couldn’t possibly guess what happened to him. There is no: Professor Plum, in the dining room, with the candle stick, moment. You’ve read and reread Welcome to Temptation, can you untangle the who-killed-Zane-Black web?
k2: Oh yes. I know exactly how it happened. It’s sort of like when you’re a kid and figuring out a puzzle — once you know the sequence, you test yourself every now and then. Let me set up the scene first:

“Look for a gun, a club, and a can of Mace and a car with some Zane in its tires,” Wes said.

You know when you have that many possibilities (can you die from Mace? Do I want to know?), you have to assume that the dude has made some enemies. Wait, here’s another clue:

…”There’s water in the lungs and it’s river water…”

So, the put-down of Georgia might be one of the all-time classics. I mean, who goes there? And how do you get there? Zane propels a lot of action (and keeps propelling right on into Faking It) and, I think, ultimately leads to Sophie and Phin (and even Wes and Amy) coming to terms with their relationships. He sort of seals the deal for Leo and Rachel — Leo gets to be the man for a change. But let’s finish this sordid tale:

“…but Zane didn’t drown.”
Phin dropped into the chair across from him. “So what killed him?”
Wes tossed the report onto his desk. “Heart attack”
Phin leaned back. “That a joke?”

And the beauty is, no, it’s not a joke. In a single night, Zane Black’s body is put through much, much more than any live or dead human should endure, but he’s already gone. Maybe Clea watched him die, maybe she didn’t. Bottom line is that a lot of people are scared that they’ve killed a guy — and worse, didn’t report it at the time — but he was already dead. Makes it all seem silly…which, I think, was the point. The cover-up is worse than the crime.
We’re at the end of this (unless, you know, you want to keep quoting favorite pieces back and forth…which I’m thinking we should do at a lovely spa because that’s what real reviewers do). But…pool. What’s up with the pool?
wd: Before we really end this discussion I need to say thank you to Kassia for basically implying my life was nothing but wasted time if I hadn’t read Welcome to Temptation. At the time of her declaration, I was barely familiar with Kassia*, but felt that if she were willing to make such a strong statement about a book, that I really needed to investigate. I’m glad I did because Welcome to Temptation immediately shot to the top of my favorite reads list. Actually, I think when I reached the last page, I immediately flipped back to the first and read it again. So, thank you, Kassia.
Now we have reached the end of the line here, despite the fact that we never talked about the censorship issue, or that Phin owns a bookstore, or that the first time Sophie and Phin have sex it starts out pretty lousy, or that Welcome To Temptation has another messed up sister relationship, or Dusty Springfield, or any of the movie quotes, or, well, there’s a lot to this book. There’s a lot to all Crusie books, and if tradition holds, Kassia, you and I will be back here in about six months to discuss an old Crusie favorite, or a re-release, or perhaps Agnes and the Hitman. I leave the next discussion up to you. You pick the title and date, and I’ll show up ready to chat.
I’m leaving Phin’s pool table and all the other things that didn’t make it into our discussion to our readers. Chat amongst yourselves and one commenter will be randomly chosen to win a box of books.
[k2: * Meaning we’d just met thirty seconds before. Give or take. But your thank you is taken to heart. Give Lois and Miles another chance will you…I hardly ever steer you wrong.]
You can visit Jenny here and purchase this book here and here.

6 thoughts on “Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie

  1. Ah, my favorite romance gets on this site. Yay!
    You guys have read Faking It, right? Dillie IS parroting Davy in that one…
    I really hope in 10-20 years, Dillie gets her own book. That would be all kinds of awesome.

  2. With Crusie I’m as close as I get to being a squeeing fan-girl (and with her that turns out to be pretty close indeed).
    I think her dialog, despite it’s non-conformity, is such a great reflection of the way funny people speak. She gets the cadence and rhythms of that “Hepburn-Tracy-esque” style of speech that you mention, and then she writes it almost as if it were a screenplay minus the scene headings.
    And yes, I too agree on the male-ness of her heros. I love that she doesn’t need to make them uber-alphas for them to be sexy as all get out. Actually her characterizations, both male and female, all feel so genuine it’s refreshing. They aren’t larger than life to in order to propel the plot. They don’t need to be. Her characters just seem like interesting people, not super heros and damsels in distress.

  3. I think I fell in love with this book when Wes installed the flexible shower head for Amy and everyone naturally assumed she was doing immoral things with it.

  4. Ah, the shower head — who knew it was such a romantic turning point???
    I’ve been following the progress of your work with Eric, Laura — here’s hoping its comes to life soon!

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