Never underestimate the number of middle-aged women in the Pacific Northwest who fantasize about going to foreign countries and having sex with Javier Bardem.
Freshman author Audrey Braun courted the horny mom demographic and scored an unexpected regional hit last year with the self-published A Small Fortune ($13.95, 286 pages)—the story of a bored Portland book editor who gets her groove back after being kidnapped in Mexico and thrust into a steamy affair with a Latin hunk (based on his description, a Bardem stand-in). Picked up by Amazon's Encore imprint, it's Braun's first crack at the suspense genre. She took to writing it as a lark while laboring on a more serious literary novel (publishing this month under her given name, Deborah Reed). It's not surprising the book found an audience: A feminist daydream for women too smart for smutty paperbacks but not above reading something completely ridiculous, it's tailor-made for Portland.
A Small Fortune is, indeed, completely fucking ridiculous. It's a quintessential quick read, the kind of book you spend a plane flight with, then forget you even own. Even by those standards, it's still pretty ludicrous. A synopsis threatens to reveal too much, so I'll just say it somehow travels from Puerto Vallarta to Zurich, involves an insanely convoluted criminal scheme, and features a sex scene on a jungle floor, a post-coital reference to Shake 'N Bake, a major plot point involving Viagra and an exploding iguana.
Sounds like asinine fun. At least, it should be. But it's not clear how seriously Braun is taking all this. There are moments when she seems to wink at the reader, to let us know she's mostly joking. "This is such a cliché," says Celia, the protagonist and narrator, as she finds her libido inflamed by Benicio, the hot pool boy she'll soon be shagging on two continents; the scenario reminds her of the hokey erotic fiction she edits for a living. But the book isn't self-aware enough to register as a genre parody and too preposterous to generate any actual thrills, leaving it stuck in an odd purgatory where you're not sure if each new, increasingly absurd piece of the puzzle is supposed to make you laugh so much. Braun writes with great concision of language—there's hardly a wasted word or superfluous detail in the whole book—which bodes well for her forthcoming work. A Small Fortune, however, never becomes more than the tossed-off distraction it started out as.
READ IT: A Small Fortune is available at bookstores.