While browsing the romance heading on Amazon, I came across a book whose title made me laugh out loud. Not because it’s particularly funny, in its own right, but because it brought to mind a well-established pop-culture reference. The book, Simple Jess, by Pamela Morsi, looked innocuous enough; it tells the tale of a good widow, living in backwoods Arkansas at the turn of the 20th century, being forced to marry one of two suitors, chosen by her town. But her heart may belong the the town simpleton, Jesse Best.
No, really, that’s the actual (though paraphrased) description of this book. I picked it up because I couldn’t tell if it was a wink and nod to Ben Stiller’s infamous Simple Jack, from the equally infamous Tropic Thunder, or if it was a serious story without a hint of irony. To be honest, after reading it, I’m still unsure if Simple Jess is an earnest attempt to show that Love Knows No Bounds (I capitalize tropes, OK? Go with it), or if the author felt what brief moments we saw from the Simple Jack trailer were a challenge to her story-telling abilities.
Althea Winsloe is a variation of the Firebrand, a woman who wants to live her life in the way she sees fit, and to go against the grain of the times. In this case, she has been widowed for nearly three years, and the town feels that it ain’t fittin’ for a woman to be alone on a farm, and she simply must remarry. Naturally, Althea thinks this is foolish and refuses to marry. The aforementioned plot by the town to get her to remarry begins.
Jesse Best is, of course, the Boy archetype, in more ways than one. Morsi took Kirk Lazarus’ advice to heart — whether knowingly or not — and has created a Forrest Gump-type of character. He’s slow, but not so slow as to be unrelatable as a love interest. Oh, did I mention he’s also an Adonis? Apparently this man is just the most beautiful thing any of these people have ever seen, he just happens to be slower than most. Morsi has managed to combine the Boy and the Gentle Giant archetype together with surprisingly good effect.
Typically, the Firebrand and Boy don’t pair well together, but their chemistry actually works in this story. Maybe because the Firebrand’s assertion is that she doesn’t need a man — despite, of course, very much needing one because this is a romance novel after all — and the Boy’s assertion is that he really is a man, and not a boy trapped in a man’s body. That is, they have very simple motivations that don’t feel at odds with one another; they aren’t competing for self-realization.
To her credit, Morsi also foregoes the Mustache Twirler as villain and instead opts for several Meddlers. Even the main antagonist, Eben Baxley (these people are from the South, OK? Naming is not their strong suit), initially appears as the overtly malicious character, but is given a surprising redemption arc that works within the narrative. I know, I’m shocked, too.
In an even more bizarre turn of events, Jesse is backed by an understanding, doting family. So many Boy archetypes are saddled with the Disapproving Father or Secretly Evil Brother/Brother-in-Law, and that is wholly absent from Simple Jess. That might not sound like a big deal, but believe me when I say it is. It helps the scant story flow much smoother and quicker, which is important.
Along those lines, the story follows all of the familiar beats, except Morsi doesn’t bog down the tale with any of the rejection we see so often in romance novels. Althea mentally rejects Jesse, a few times, but there is only one minor misunderstanding between the two that never lingers. Given the subject matter, it’s surprisingly on-topic and never strays from the central idea that these two characters are destined to be together.
It is surprisingly stark on, uh, physical interactions. There isn’t even a lot by way of sexual tension. There are plenty of paragraphs spent on describing how inhumanly beautiful Jesse is, and, of course, Althea is always shocked to notice this about him for some strange reason. Also, she appears to be the only person in their town who recognizes this? I mean, I don’t care how unintelligent someone is, people are bound to notice he’s hawt, right? She basically describes him looking like Channing Tatum. You don’t not notice Channing Tatum, people. I digress. Except for one kiss, the book is mostly sexless until the end. It’s worth the wait once you get there, but if you’re looking something a little more <clears throat> involved, this isn’t it.
I admittedly went into this book for the potential comedic value, and came out shocked at what a nice story it tells. Make no mistake, it’s also probably one of the cheesiest books I’ve read in a few years, too, but it’s surprisingly well balanced. It’s saccharine, yes, but that actually works in its favor. Every now and then, it’s OK to mainline sweet romance. I just need something a little gritter now, to balance the sugar content.
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