Saturday, November 19, 2005

Just Like That

Karin Kallmaker
Bella Books
1594930252, $12.95

"Everybody knows that a single woman with good money is in want of a wife (1)." English Lit majors and fans of Jane Austen will recognize this paraphrase from the opening of Pride and Prejudice. Karin Kallmaker's latest romance, Just Like That -- set in the wine country of Northern California -- is a very modern, decidedly lavender, adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Syrah Ardani is 30, recently returned from years studying Oenology in France. The only daughter of the widowed Anthony Ardani, the owner of Ardani Vineyards, Syrah lives and breathes the vines like her father and is comfortably settling into life at home. Yet clearly something with the family business is… off.

Jane Lucas, Syrah's long time friend, struggling artist and former heart-breaker-butch, is about to fall hard for the new, very eligible dyke in the area, Missy Bingley. Initially Jane, who has decided to "settle down", appears to be on the calculating side about Missy with comments like, "... Definitely a dyke. And femme, so, hey, I'm thinking she needs a wife like me. I've got all the qualifications. I can fix stuff, dance, like to talk and think sex is really fun. My only strike against me is the money thing (3)."

However, Jane is thunderstruck when she meets Missy. Missy Bingley, forty-something, successful businesswoman retiring to rehabilitate her newly acquired historic Netherfield estate, appears equally smitten with Jane. Does love at first sight exist?

Before long, Syrah realizes that her gentle, intuitive, wine-knowledgeable father is the definition of naive with what has to be the antithesis of a head for business. While she was gone, he has incorporated the vineyards, over-extended his capital and been unable to cover his debt. The future of the Ardani Vineyards is in danger and the creditors have gone to court. An "axe man" is being sent to take stock of the situation.

Toni Blanchard is that "axe man." She is also very attractive. Syrah first sees a photograph of her from a Fortune magazine article and describes her thus: "Dark hair twisted at the neck and East Coast stylish, Toni Blanchard gazed out from the page with an expression Syrah could only describe as haughty. If the toes on her shoes had been any longer they'd have curled like some court jester's. Everything about her dripped wealth and superiority(12)."

An intelligent, thoughtful, skilled woman, Toni's job is to make difficult recommendations for companies that are in receivership, and she is well respected in her field. She is also the daughter of Anthony's old college friend. This connection encourages Anthony to believe that Toni will "fix" the situation. The vintner never seems to understand that Toni's role is to represent the court and creditors.

Toni arrives in the area emotionally shell-shocked. Her lover of several years, Mira, has dumped her for another woman, moved out and taken possession of funds that are not hers. Staying with her old friend Missy Bingley while reviewing the Ardani accounts, Toni begins to find some peace in the green hills of northern California.

She realizes that she had not been in love the last several years and that Mira's actions -- while unethical and unpleasant -- hurt her pride more than her heart. Still, Toni is jaded and that makes her doubt the sincerity of the woman who is courting Missy. Furthermore, falling in love is the last thing Toni needs right now; yet there is Syrah, a lovely, radiant, spirited earth goddess seeming to draw Toni to her.

Needless to say, several complications ensue. The future of the Ardani Vineyards hangs precariously. Both Toni and Syrah must deal with their preconceived notions of the other and their stubborn egos in order to have a chance at following their hearts. They must also contend with the nefarious manipulations of Mira and Caroline.

Indeed, Kallmaker has created a decidedly nasty nemesis in Lady Mira Wickham. Even after an unpleasant break up, Toni -- and this reader -- was surprised at how spiteful and meddlesome Mira could be. Missy's snarky nickname for Mira is "reech beech" and that seems mild by the end of the story. For that matter, Caroline, Missy's sister, runs a close second for the title.

Austen fans will recognize several familiar names in Just Like that. Bennett, Netherfield, Jane, and Bingley are among the names and characters borrowed from Pride and Prejudice and some of the structure of the story is similar to Austen's. However, there should be no question in readers' minds but that Kallmaker has written a contemporary novel, with complex realistic characters set in an engaging region. She also provides interesting viniculture background. This is a lively romance with hot sex. The lead characters are sometimes frustratingly stubborn, yet this reader found them compelling and was curious to discover out how Kallmaker would solve the problems they faced.

Austen has been called the mother of the romance novel and there is a nice symmetry to Kallmaker, today's best-selling writer of lesbian romances, paying tribute to the roots of the genre with Just Like That. She has given us a new look at prejudice and a different view of pride all painted with the dark purple of a fruity Shiraz. Kallmaker has bottled a wonderful year for her readers, Just Like That. Decant it and enjoy.

-MJ Lowe