Posted on April 17, 2008 by alanajoli
When I picked up Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith, I was expecting something along the lines of Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight. Though I’m not sure where I got that impression, I quickly discovered that, while Tantalize and Twilight may both feature stories of star-crossed love and potentially doomed relationships, Tantalize doesn’t make the love story its center. Instead, it focuses on a sort of coming-of-age for Quincie, a heroine named after the Texan vampire hunter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Quincie is a strong young woman who, by the beginning of the story, has already had to cope with the deaths of her parents. She is going to inherit the family restaurant when she turns eighteen, but until then, she shares responsibilities for running it with her uncle. Because business has been bad, her uncle formed a plan to increase sales by remodeling their traditional Italian eatery to have a vampiric theme, still keeping the best of Italian dishes while serving the would-be vampire crowd, which happens to include his girlfriend. When their head chef, Quincie’s surrogate parent after she lost her biological ones, is murdered, the vampire theme begins to take on a more sinister tone. With the opening date creeping closer and the fear that someone she knows–possibly her best friend and the love of her life, Kieren, a hybrid-werewolf–could be a murderer, Quincie’s life focuses intensley on the one thing she seems to be able to control: the new chef. But there is more to Harvey Johnson than meets the eye, and the family restaurant seems destined to attract both the living and the undead.
Leitich Smith does an excellent job of having more and more of Quincie’s life revolve around the restaurant as her old trusts come into question. But even while Quincie tries to keep control of what she loves, she finds herself more and more attracted to the restaurant’s wine selection. That choice leads to danger–though not the way the reader expects–until Quincie’s control is completely wrested away from her. Only remembering to value what she really loves gives her the strength to fight for herself. (My phrasing here is entirely vague, as the twist by the end caught me by surprise, and I’d hate to ruin that experience for other readers.) Because the entire story is told from Quincie’s perspective, readers may not sense where the danger actually comes from until it has already struck–I was suspicious, but the result blindsided me. This is a great device for the effect of the horror in Quincie’s life, but it also diminishes the reader’s ability to trust some of the secondary characters. When they come to help Quincie save the day, their appearance is almost suspect–by then, so much else has turned upside down that it’s hard to guess whether true love will win after all. That, too, could be part of the effect Leitich Smith was working toward.
The most memorable part of Tantalize is actually neither the characters nor the plot (a surprise, as usually the characters are the biggest part of what draws me into a story). Tantalize is set in an alternate version of Austin, TX, where vampires and werewolves are known quantities, and protesters sit on street corners, fighting for undead rights. There are pressures for were-creatures and hybrids to register with the government, so keeping their identity a secret is almost more akin to the situation super heroes face in the Marvel universe than the typical horror novel. This image of Austin as a perpetually wacky place is incredibly appealing, and the city’s motto (“Keep Austin Weird”) has never seemed more appropriate. Though I have never been to Texas, Leitich Smith hails from there, so I suspect that her setting rings true with natives and arm-chair tourists alike. The story is engaging, the menu is (dare I say it?) tantalizing, and the locale shines. This one is worth reading for teens (the target audience) and adults alike.
Review by Alana Abbott
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