Frisky romance readers, pull up a chair (or lie down on a therapist's couch) and prepare for a bumpy (and often in-your-face) ride. Debut novelist Cathy Lamb's JULIA'S CHOCOLATES is quite a tour through the hearts and minds of abused women turned righteous dames.
The story opens with the line "I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota." This is a light and fluffy love-him-and-leave-him-at-the-altar setup that immediately hooks those who are looking for a catch --- the catch being, of course, that things are not quite what they seem.
Julia Bennett has finally run out on her deadbeat husband-to-be for good --- if she can help it. The constant beating, the sexual abuse, the name calling (Canonball Butt, Bitch, Possum) and the incessant criticism ("Damn. You've put on even more weight haven't you?") are just too much for her rapidly deteriorating self-esteem. Despite her pressing urge to escape her trailer trash past by marrying Robert, Julia is instead in desperate need of a new beginning --- independent of any man, for better or for worse.
With nowhere else to go, Julia drives to Golden, Oregon, to stay with her hippified Aunt Lydia (yes, she grows pot in her basement). Lydia introduces her to three women who become her strength, inspiration and life force: Lara, a minister's wife and repressed artist; Katie, a kind soul, albeit one married to an alcoholic abuser; and Caroline, an eye-twitching psychic. Throughout the novel, the three swap stories and trudge through their respective nightmarish existences, fluctuating wildly between defeat and empowerment.
Beyond the fab foursome, Julia is soon aligned with a man she calls Paul Bunyan, notably for his brawny shoulders, baby blues and good looks. Although he courts her (in spite of her self-conscious insecurities), Julia takes things slow for fear of getting too close too soon. In the meantime, she suffers from frequent panic attacks, bakes chocolate incessantly and tries to block out her sordid past --- until it comes calling.
Just when she's starting to settle into her life in Golden, mysterious (or-not-so) blank letters (including one with a stabbed dead chicken) arrive for her in the mail. Rather than lean on her newfound family and friends, Julia attempts to remain the so-called strong person that she has tried to become…and ignores them. Until Robert shows up, seeking revenge.
The final showdown takes place in a flurry, and every character's feathers are sufficiently ruffled until, quite miraculously, they settle. Despite the intense drama throughout the story, all is pretty much…well…golden in the end.
JULIA'S CHOCOLATES takes on a number of hard-hitting issues in its 400 pages: sexual abuse, weight and body image issues, the inadequacy of Social Services, lust verses love, low self-esteem and dependency, religion and trust. With that being said, the forum in which these areas are explored is firmly routed in the romance novel genre. The writing style is quite descriptive, and some readers might balk at the nonstop (and effacing) mention of certain body parts. Nonetheless, fans of this type of read will enjoy the story through to the end.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on May 1, 2007