I picked up a copy of Smart Blondes by Sonia Koso. The cover gave off a sort of retro vibe that attracted me to it. Ditto the blurb. I was more than in the mood for a good laugh, but what should have been a delightful read was reduced to sporadic pleasure due to some problems I encountered with the writing. Ms. Koso is a talented writer, but that’s as far as I can go since for me, Smart Blondes never got off the ground.
The novel begins with a prologue that centers on the childhood friendship of Portia Mason and Cassie Case. Even though best buds, the relationship sours due to Portia’s increasing jealousy over Cassie’s winning ways. The lack of an emotional connection between the two took what could have been interesting characters and watered them down to dull. To add to this, we’re pelted with details as to why Portia Mason resents Cassie so much, but there’s never an explanation as to what is in it for Portia to remain friends—and no demonstration of it either. No heart-to-hearts or mention of laughs shared. It’s a classic case of telling and not showing because a summation of circumstances doesn’t really let us get to know them on a personal basis. Because of this, we’re left hanging as to the reasons these two bonded in the first place. Worse, this emotional disconnect occurs between all the major characters and continues throughout the novel.
Take Cassie, now Cassie Pryce, and her husband Jake. There’s a cursory sentence as to what attracted her to him, but we don’t feel it. Having an author say that Cassie found Jake sexy and charming doesn’t begin to cover why a woman, who seemingly had everything, would marry him. Aren’t things a bit more complicated than that? Or is Cassie so one-dimensional that a ready smile and roguish swagger are enough? Even if this is enough, we need to be shown, but all we get are vignettes and backstories. This oversight in opening up the heart of the characters to the reader contributes to the stilting of these personalities that Ms. Koso tries so hard to paint and yet fails. Actions aren’t emotions. And even when Portia and Carrie reconnect several years later, there’s still all this distance between them. This even while Portia is helping her through a troubling time. There’s no internal dialogue as to how appreciative Carrie is or even a vague heartfelt pang that Portia feels when seeing her old friend. It left me cold and without insight as to what is really going on. This reuniting could have been a wonderful opportunity to solidify the heart of their relationship and inject it with human passion, but it’s wasted.
The other problem for me is Ms. Koso’s penchant for digressing. I’m not one that minds backstories (Elmore Leonard’s philosophy about not including what people don’t read be damned), so it wasn’t the fact these stories weren’t edited out that bothered me. It was more that they were sometimes uninteresting and misplaced enough to interfere with the flow of the story. For instance, Carrie’s traumatic return to her hometown is explained in a flashback. This flashback starts out the sound of a gunshot coming out of Carrie Pryce’s home. Rather than focus on that and continue with relating what occurred, the story segues into a detailed description of Austin, the city where the house is located. Then it’s six paragraphs of describing the house and giving its history. Next, two paragraphs are spent on Gloria Pryce, Carrie’s mother-in-law. After all this, do we finally return to what happened? Nope! Instead, it’s onto two paragraphs about Carrie’s husband Jake and another three on Carrie. These included physical descriptions of both. Did we really need to know how tall they were right then and there? And the story still does not return to the event that caused Cassie to bolt. It meanders back to Jake for another four paragraphs which also include more details about his physical appearance. We then bounce back to Carrie for several pages of info that includes the compelling reason for choosing one summer camp over another. Did we really need to know that? It was awkward and ruined the pacing of what should have been climactic. By the time we find out about what is occurring in the household and who fired the shot, we’re left trying to gain momentum instead of having the action snowball down the mountain.
I’m not sure I needed all this history of the house, Jake’s body, and the summer camps, but if it was important, it needed to be placed somewhere else. And the jumping back and forth with physical descriptions was unnecessary. Just tell us and get it over with or filter it in throughout the pages. As for the whole subject of digressing, while the book was obviously edited, someone with a better ear for flow might have helped get these word expeditions under control. It’s obviously a stylistic choice and I‘m not suggesting Ms. Koso abandon it. There are several places where it works to her advantage so it just needs to be developed perhaps to a homier vibe for maximum impact.
On the plus side, there is a good character-driven story and plenty of solid one liners that elicited belly laughs. The dialogue was, for the most part, sparkling, and I loved the historical references. You do feel as if you are in Texas, but ultimately it was the lack of emotions and ill-placed, ill-advised journeys into the past that really kept me at bay which is a shame. I do recommend this story—most especially if you enjoy a story long on Southern charm and authenticity so I’m giving Smart Blondes three stars.