Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie

I think you have to be pretty well-versed in the convention of the romcom (in either its literary or cinematic forms) to appreciate just how delightfully weird Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation really is. In this relatively short novel, she subverts as many genre tropes as she luxuriates in, with a plot that careens wildly between a small-town farce, a family drama, and a murder mystery. That and a couple of pretty involved sex scenes.

The story begins with two Dusty Springfield-loving sisters, Sophie and Amy Dempsey, who drive into a sleepy little town called Temptation and promptly involve themselves in a car accident. This is only the first of the disruptions that they cause, however, because the short film that they had originally planned on shooting somehow devolves into gauzy, soft-core porn. As the responsible one in the family, Sophie has to do her best to protect their little production, which means dealing with Temptation’s handsome mayor, Phin Tucker. Sparks fly between them, because it must.

Crusie’s humor is a great mix of profane and endearing, especially when she gets into the petty bickering and gossiping of the townsfolk. One of the most enjoyable scenes is the town hall meeting where the assembly debate on whether the town’s bright pink water tower looks too much like a penis. Several people from Sophie’s past also make an appearance and further cause drama in the neighborhood, including another Dempsey. He also happens to be an art thief.

The novel’s structure diverges from the traditional in that the two protagonists come together–uh, so to speak–relatively early on in the story. The final conflict then sidesteps the whole “do they love each other or not” rigamarole that bogs down a lot of romance novels. It’s pretty refreshing for that reason. It is also refreshingly less cynical about gender issues than the current spate of romantic comedies we’ve been having in the movies ever since the oppressive reign of Gerard Butler the Romantic Ideal began.

While the strength of this story lies in the zany plot twists and outsized side characters, they can also disorient the reader. I had expected a comforting read when I picked it up, not what pretty much amounts to a Coen Brothers take on the romcom. Welcome to Temptation is not the kind of novel that I would read to turn my brain off–there are too many jokes for that. All in all it is a bracing exercise in how much the romance genre can stretch itself while still remaining true to its structure, and a great product of an authorial mind with a lot of witty one-liners to tell.

I also recommend watching Jennifer Crusie talk about her writing process as well as her delightful podcast Popcorn Dialogues, which began as a dissection of romantic comedy movies through the decades.

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