Dear Mrs. Smith,
Somehow I’ve missed reading your previous novels. Oh, not because I’ve not heard of them or how good they are. In fact, several of them are long time favorite reads of people whose literary opinions I trust. I guess I’ve just been stupid. Or as we say in the South, an idjit. “The Crossroads Cafe” truly shows me what I’ve been missing.
Thomas Mitternich and Cathryn Deen are two scarred and lost people. Thomas lost his wife and son in the horror of 9/11 then spent days and months literally clawing through the wreckage to find their bodies. He drinks to numb himself from the memories and guilt and has finally found a refuge of sorts in the western North Carolina mountains at the Crossroads Cafe. Cathryn Deen has ties to the same place. Her mother’s people have lived in the mountains for generations. Though Cathy has lived in Southern California for years, she has fond memories of it and the mouthwatering food her granny used to cook for her. When “the most beautiful woman in the world” is trapped in a burning car wreck which scars her for life, she’s about ready to give up until a care package of biscuits arrives at the burn unit.
The Crossroads Cafe is an old timey restaurant run by Delta Whittlespoon. She is determined to keep Thomas from killing himself when the memories become too much and to help her distant relative, Cathy, to regain her self esteem when the world turns its back on the once beautiful woman. Both Thomas and Cathy have lost what was dear to them and despair of loving or being loved again. But as the T-shirts sold at the Cafe proclaim, “The Lard Cooks in Mysterious Ways.” Together and separately, they prod themselves and each other to take the tiny steps needed to move past the pain and memories of the past while dealing with the needs and personalities of the people in Crossroads, NC.
I get tired of characters who are written as angst filled and tormented but who ultimately turn out to merely misunderstood. In Thomas and Cathy, the reader is presented with the real thing. A dead family will never come back to life and third degree burn scars will never go away. Those things are immediately obvious but what adds to the complexity of this book are the underlying problems which are slowly revealed. What if Thomas and his wife had argued about which one was going to watch their son that morning and Thomas “won” the free morning? Or Cathy survives the crash only to find herself paralyzed with fear at the site of open flames or cars? Their issues go deeper and beyond what I’m used to seeing in romance novels.
I like how you don’t have love conquer all their problems. Yes, it helps to heal but you show that in the long run each of us has to overcome our own fears and face down our demons. And that this process can take varying amounts of time for each person. I like how you use these demons to keep the characters apart rather than silly contrived misunderstandings. I adored the references and descriptions of good old fashioned Southern cooking while the Cafe reminds me of many wonderful restaurants in which I’ve eaten. The atmosphere is just right and brought back memories of visiting my own kin in the mountains. My mother calls driving all the switchbacks on the narrow mountain roads “swinging on a grapevine” and more than once (while someone else was driving) I’ve closed my eyes rather than look over the edge to the precipice way below.
Your humor keeps the book from being an orgy of pain and suffering. I found myself laughing and crying at the same scenes. The secondary characters are delightful and I thank you for not making them into double named caricatures of Southerners. But perhaps there were too many “characters?” I found myself looking for “normal” people without any quirks. And it seems like almost every character has some past tragedy to overcome. I also felt that the ending was just a touch too much like a triumphant movie of the week. But these are small niggles compared to the overall enjoyment I got from the book. A- for this one.