by Susan Wiggs Harlequin MIRA Hardcover (June 2014) The Rosy Glow of Romance Blame it on Yelp, blame it on the unspoken rule for giving books five star reviews, blame it on the political correctness mania that is sweeping campuses, but it seems that novels these days demand less of readers than they used to. The reader is urged to enjoy rather than to think. In an article in The New York Times Book Review of August 30 2015, author Zoe Heller noted that her graduate students (graduate students!) complained about the required reading if they didn’t like the characters, or if they had any trouble following the story. They were, she said, indignant. It was if the author were a host who had forgotten to make his guests comfortable. I’m assuming these students were reading literary fiction rather than romance. Great literature has always challenged assumptions. That is the purpose of art. It is not the purpose of romance novels, however. The romance writer’s author’s goal is to take the reader away from gritty reality into the realm of dreams. So it is with The Beekeepers Ball, by Susan Wiggs. This best-selling mass market romance author returns to the idyllic Bella Vista farm in Sonoma County, California where her heroine, Isabel, is hard at work planning her half-sister’s wedding and the opening of her cooking school. Isabel keeps bees, hence the title, and a beekeeping mishap starts the story, her introduction to bee-allergic biographer Cormac O’Neill. The book is written in chapters that alternate between Denmark under the German occupation and present-day California. This has the affect of reminding readers of their own good fortune just to be living in this time and place and contributes to the feel-good nature of the book. The developing relationship between Isabel and Mac is sweet. In addition, a romance emerges between two characters in their late seventies, and this is refreshing. Mouth-watering recipes featuring honey dot the pages. As a writer who is still trying to learn the art of writing fiction after years of journalism, I found Wigg’s book structure unusual to say the least. Somehow Wiggs makes the novel work while disobeying the rule to up the conflict and tone down the flashbacks. Moreover, while the flashbacks are active, there is a lot of passivity in the present-day settings. It’s as if Bella Vista is drowning in honey. Since I know the countryside around Sonoma well, I found the descriptions of it and its small, wealthy little towns both accurate and gauzy. It was like looking at them through a veil – and I don’t mean a beekeeper’s veil. First of all, Bella Vista seems to have been under Isabel’s grandfather’s ownership without any visible means of support. Ostensibly an apple farm, the place is being transformed by the work crew into “a destination cooking school.” The only animals on the farm are cats, dogs and bees, which keep the place proudly “critter-free.” Secondly, the renovation is taking place without a whole lot of stress on the part of its owner. Actually, we are told about the stress, but it is not evident. When O’Neill mentions to Isabel that she should put in a swimming pool, she is embarrassed that she hadn’t thought of it herself. Later in the book, we see excavations being dug for a pool. Isabel says, “What’s another hundred grand?” What indeed? There is no conflict whatsoever between the members of this very odd family, even though the half-sisters have only recently met each other and share a father and an actual birthdate. Think about that, reader – the potential for conflict is huge. It’s just avoided in this book. No one has any financial stress except a minor character, a homeless pregnant teenager whom Isabel takes care of, thus eliminating that conflict. The cooking school renovations are apparently paid for by the sale of family artifacts sold by Tess, the newly discovered half sister, who is a fine arts appraiser and auctioneer. But how this family had any artifacts to sell is not made clear. The grandparents arrived penniless in the US from war-torn Europe. The only real conflicts are in flashback, to the World War II experiences of Isabel’s grandparents. Naturally, the grandparents behaved bravely under extreme danger in that war and despite their hardships, managed to live happily ever after in America. But who am I to quibble? Despite its quirks, I read this book compulsively from beginning to end. Ms. Wiggs captured my attention even as I could not help noting the flaws in motivation and causation noted above. Then again, this is the second in the Bella Vista series and having missed the first, perhaps the characters and their backgrounds are more fully fleshed out in the previous book. Romance is romance and it outsells any other genre. This author is like the welcoming host who makes guests so comfortable they can flop on the couch. This is a good read for the last warm days of summer.