By DONNA MARCHETTI
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
'ISN'T IT ROMANTIC?' by Ron Hansen (HarperCollins, $17.95)
Ron Hansen has a surprise for us. Hansen, the author of a string of exquisitely crafted novels like "Mariette in Ecstasy" and "Hitler's Niece," has been widely praised for his depth of perception and seriousness of purpose. But here he cheerily presents a literary bonbon as sweet and light as meringue. Not to mention cinematic.
Hansen's "Isn't It Romantic?" is a modern comedy of errors -- a sort of "Midsummer Night's Dream" meets Nora Ephron screenplay -- that practically screams Hollywood.
Something out of Hollywood
First, there's the quirky setting: Seldom, Neb., population 395, a village straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting that owes its existence to a 19th-century Bordelaise trapper.
Then there's the mismatched but likable assortment of characters: Natalie, a 26-year-old French beauty with a passion for all things American; Pierre, her philandering, Gucci-clad fianc & eacute; who's given to tossing his golden mane with dramatic effect; Iona, a sultry blond waitress at Seldom's Main Street Cafe; Dick, a handsomely rugged 50-something cattle rancher; and a plethora of eccentric old ladies and oddball men.
Finally, there's the plot: Fed up with Pierre's shameless infidelities, Natalie abandons him and embarks on a cross-country bus tour of America. But glancing up from breakfast at an Omaha restaurant, she sees Pierre striding toward her --to reclaim her. When their bus breaks down they find themselves in Seldom, glaring at one another across the pink Formica of the Main Street Cafe.
The town is on the brink of The Revels, a celebration of its French legacy, where it is customary to install a visiting couple as king and queen. What better choice than the unsuspecting French pair?
Soon Natalie and Pierre are immersed in small-town America rubbing shoulders with Cheez Whiz on Ritz -- the perfect formula for lighthearted cultural skirmishes.
Romance is also in the air. Sparks fly between Natalie and Dick; Pierre cannot take his eyes from Iona. But wait -- is Natalie sneaking a jealous peek at the amorous couple? Does Dick carry a flame for Iona? A hilarious series of misunderstandings, mistaken identities and schemes gone awry culminate in a satisfying denouement.
Hansen sometimes pushes the antics a bit too far, crossing over into the absurd. Two teen-age boys wearing scuba tanks wander in and out of the story, adding nothing but puzzlement.
Still, for all the smiles and outright laughter Hansen is likely to elicit, he probably can be forgiven. After all, even Shakespeare wasn't above a bit of silliness. And that's not such bad company to keep.
uMarchetti writes for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Fort Worth, Texas.