Cedar Fort/Bonneville Books, ISBN 9781599555164, July 2011
Kelly Grace Pickens is in love and about to be married--or so she thinks. Her fiance Trevor, who is also her manager for struggling singing career, doesn't show up for the wedding. On the same day, she learns that she's not getting the touring gig she and Trevor had been counting on. She's emotionally devastated and publicly humiliated, and she soon learns that she's also homeless and destitute. Trevor hasn't actually been paying the mortgage on her condo as he had claimed. She's also left holding the bill for the very expensive wedding that didn't happen.
What's a girl to do? Into the breach steps her cousin Sissy, co-producer of the reality show, Count Down to Love. It's a show that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever watched, or seen the ads for, The Bachelor, or Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire. She descends on Kelly while she's sitting on the front porch of her daddy's home, eating her wedding cake, because daddy's not home and her keys are locked up in her foreclosed condo. Kelly needs someplace to be, and some way to earn some money. Sissy, it turns out, needs a replacement contestant for Count Down, because the "naive, wholesome girl" is now in the hospital with anorexia and won't be out in time to start shooting. Kelly, a genuinely naive, wholesome girl, daughter of a Baptist minister, is not happy with the idea, but she really does need money, needs to not be sitting around brooding over Trevor's disappearance, and accepts Sissy's promise that she'll be off after the first show anyway.
Things don't go exactly according to plan, and Kelly spends the next few months traveling the country, getting acquainted with the other contestants, making both friends and enemies, and most of all spending time with the handsome bachelor, Dillon Black. It's complicated enough even before Trevor reappears and she learns where he's been and why. She's got some major decisions to make, and the repercussions send shock waves through all her new relationships.
Skipping lightly away from the plot points, the interesting thing here are the relationships, among the women as much as between each of them and Dillon, or between Kelly and Trevor. Kelly is a sweet, naive, but under it all smart and tough young woman. She's also a Southerner, born, bred, and raised in Nashville, TN, and of course she takes it for granted that the Southern view of the world is the fact-based one. There is one black contestant on Count Down, and she is, surprise surprise, annoyed and offended when Kelly comes to breakfast wearing a nightshirt bearing the Confederate battle flag. Kelly staunchly defends it as a symbol of Southern heritage, not a symbol of slavery and oppression, apparently never having stopped to give two seconds' thought to what "Southern heritage" with respect to the Confederate battle flag really is. She even refers to the Civil War as "Northern aggression," never having been taught the bits about the states that became the Confederacy seceding after the country had an election and they didn't like the results. Or the bit about the Confederacy, specifically South Carolina, launching the first attack, against Fort Sumter.
That episode wouldn't be nearly as funny if we weren't supposed to agree with Kelly and think Patrice is a hyper-sensitive idiot. It gets better when she assumes that, because she is black, Patrice--who is a native New Yorker from an upper middle class background, will have a really good recipe for fried chicken, and then defends that silly assumption on the grounds that fried chicken is "soul food." Of course they wind up using Kelly's grandmother's recipe, and the irony is completely lost on everyone, especially Kelly.
But this really is more amusing than offensive, though I won't vouch for everyone reacting the same way I did. Kelly really is a solidly nice girl, honest and kind and too trusting for her own good. The Christian beliefs she was raised with are central for her, and she does an impressive job of living up to them while in the midst of a reality show that encourages cut-throat competition. She also forms a close friendship with another of the contestants, and is friendly with all who aren't hostile to her. The complications of these ladies all living together while competing for the one handsome, rich, charming guy who is dating all of them, and by the rules of the show can't commit to any one of them until the end, are nicely handled.
I won't claim this is great literature, but it's an enjoyable, entertaining romance with values that will be pleasing to readers who sometimes find it a challenge to locate good reading that doesn't conflict with values and customs more conservative and restrained than are typical here in the early 21st century.
I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.