All her friends think Roger is weird, but Karen knows better…
Background: 236 First Love titles were published between 1981 and 1987 by Silhouette, “AMERICA’S publisher of Contemporary Romance” (distinguishing itself from its main competitor, the Canadian-based Harlequin, which would fold Silhouette into its own operations in 2012). I have commented in the past that I thought that First Love titles compared unfavorably with the similar Wildfire, Sweet Dreams and Caprice YA Romances…
But I think I actually have to take all of that back. While Silhouette certainly released its share of dogs (talking or otherwise), I find myself surprised more often than not by the quality of writing. Or at least willing to suspend my disbelief as long as they keep the titles with bird-crazed meddling neighbors coming.
The Plot: While this one includes neither talking dogs nor perilous bird sanctuaries, it turns out to be a pretty serious and angst-filled title, as 16 year old Karen is pushed by her bitter divorced mom and older sister into following in their footsteps and campaigning for the title of Harvest Queen, in the town of Wilks, Wilks County, Kansas.
Long a willing to go along with her friends and family’s wishes, shy Karen doesn’t have much interest in putting herself out there, although she is initially delighted when as a presumptive beauty queen she attracts the attentions of her long-time crush, football star Pete. But then she meets Roger, an outsider from Chicago who is new in town and…
HEY! This entire plot is stolen from William Inge’s Picnic! Probably best known to current audiences in the form of the 1955 movie, which starred Kim Novak as the reluctant Kansas beauty queen growing bored with her boring boyfriend and an oft-shirtless William Holden as the hunk who shakes up the fatherless family’s life one summer:
Well, at least the stealing is well done. Although published in 1982, the small-town expectations and lack of choices Karen feels stuck with feel right out of the 1950s; eventually the beauty pageant becomes a somewhat surprising site for Karen to assert her own personality and make choices for a life outside of what the entire town expects of her.
As the book opens, her lifelong best friend, Sue, presumes as much as her family does that Karen will win the title of Harvest Queen that fall, despite the fact that Karen repeatedly tells everyone that she has no interest in running. Literally!
“I don’t want to be queen and I’m not going to run.”
“That’s silly. Of course you’ll run. Ever since we were in second grade we’ve known you would be queen when we were sixteen.”
“I’m not going to run for queen,” Karen said. “Maybe you should run for queen, if you think it’s so great.”
Karen faces the same non-stop “I don’t want to” “Of course you do!” non-arguments from her mother (father is long gone) and 25 year old sister, Lucy, who despite her beauty and popularity in high school is facing life as an old maid:
Though she was the most beautiful unmarried woman in town, it was true that Lucy wasn’t dating much lately. Karen wondered why. Was it because she’d turned down so many guys that they’d decided she was not going to marry at all? Or was it because Lucy was at the age where most of her friend were married? Was Lucy becoming an old maid?
While her family keeps pushing her into campaigning for the title, Karen at least takes some comfort in the fact that her longtime crush, Pete Petersen (ugh) is taking notice of her at last. As the football star of the local high school, he will surely be appointed to the Harvest Queen’s court, so maybe he’s getting a jump on the competition? Or does he really like Karen? Is she being too forward in accepting a last minute date with him to the local malt shop? WILL THE WHOLE ENTIRE TOWN LOOK UPON THIS IMPULSE UNFAVORABLY????
And then there is Roger Micklovich (ethnic!), the new guy in town whom all of Karen’s friends have dismissed as a “weirdo”. He’s really into folk singing, and expressing his thoughts without regard to local conventions.
Also, when he’s introduced, he sort of sounds like a serial killer:
She saw Roger long before he saw her. He was down on his hands and knees at the river’s edge, pulling something up out of the water. He seemed to have lost something because he was making several attempts to snag whatever it was with a long, crooked stick.
Pete and Sue appoint themselves the managers of still-reluctant Karen’s campaign, and after a double date to Roger’s folk concert in the next town in which he sings an impressive sea-chanty, they get him in on the plans, too. Because if there is one thing that will attract voters, it is folk singing.
Campaigning for Harvest Queen is an extremely long and drawn-out process that the whole town gets involved with God forbid one of the Persip sisters catch you acting without your best company manners! Seriously, this is Polly French levels of over-involvement.
The official kick off of the campaign season is the town’s 4th of July picnic, where Pete is an attentive escort. However:
If Pete was the man of her dreams, then why did she think so much about Roger? What was it about that tall, slim stranger that made her think about him? How could she be dating Pete and thinking about Roger? And why?
Uhh, need I remind you?:
[WE GET IT! –Ed.]
Karen’s first official campaign event, in which she stands outside a booth at the local shopping center in the hot, hot sun for 12 hours ends in disaster: still unenthusiastic about even running for Harvest Queen, Sue and Pete and pushy and critical, then jealous about Roger even being there:
“A lot of people might think his music is weird.”
Tensions mount as they get hot and tired and ignore Karen’s pleas for a break. When a sudden cloudburst descends upon the town, Pete and Karen scramble to save the campaign materials, and Karen is more depressed than ever about her entire life:
She turned and walked away from the busy scene in front of her. She wasn’t needed to help clean up the mess. She was needed to look pretty. And how could she look pretty in the rain?
Roger, of course is the one to come after her, and Karen is the one to initiate a passionate kiss- but when Karen says that she wants to quit the contest…
“Don’t quit the contest for others. Don’t quit the contest for me. And don’t quit the contest hoping that I’ll make it up to you somehow. Whatever you do, you’ll have to do it on your own. Don’t count on me to make it easier for you.”
Confused, Karen is unsure what to do next, especially when her mother and sister refuse to discuss the matter. Although Lucy begins to let on that she wasn’t exactly thrilled to be pushed in to running for Queen herself. After a week of agonizing back and forth, Karen finally decides out of a combination of duty and guilt over how much her mother is spending on the campaign, to continue.
But she also decides that she is going to do it on her own terms, standing up to Sue:
Karen wanted to make sure that this time she fought her own battle.
“I’m not going to lose,” she said. “Thank you for helping me. But from now on I’m going to do the planning myself.”
Sue said, “You’re going to lose,” and with that she started walking away from them.
Frankly admitting that she’s doing it for her mother and not herself, Karen relaxes enough to effectively campaign for the title, becoming a savvy people-person and learning to work a crowd with ease, and her family defers to her judgement.
When the editor of the local paper, which runs the contest, calls to inform Karen that she won, she accepts the honor gracefully.
But there are a few late-breaking complications, when she gets the news that her closest rival is demanding a recount, and it turns out that Sue had been managing said rival’s campaign behind her back and now is trying to stir up trouble.
Pete, in a flash of not being as vacuous as expected, admits to Karen he can tell that she’s Not That Into Him and gracefully bows out of their relationship. Lucy admits that she’s fed up with Wilks and announces that she’s leaving for a late start at college. Even Mom admits that’s he knew that Karen never wanted to be Harvest Queen, although is nonetheless happy she won and promises to stop living vicariously through her daughter (helped along by an implied romantic interest in a local Bachelor Farmer).
But what about Roger? Does he really think that small towns and beauty pageants are stupid and provincial? Karen asks him to meet her after the Harvest Queen Parade to clear the air, but he literally won’t stop interrupting her when she tries to explain why she remained in the contest for her mother’s sake. STOP MANSPLAINING FOR ONE MINUTE, ROGER!
She manages a second conversation later that night, in which we learn the completely unnecessary revelation that Roger had a sister, also named Karen, who was a people-pleaser until she got addicted to drugs and committed suicide, and he wanted her to live her life for herself.
So that clears everything right up? Honestly this thing was so weird for a First Love By Silhouette, I don’t even know any more.
Pseudonym Department: “Veronica Ladd” has to be a pen name, right? Someone’s a big Film Noir fan?