Romance novels have a long history of glorifying life in a small town. And why shouldn’t they? In these worlds, small towns are filled with eccentric and bumbly characters, local coffee shops where everyone gathers each morning for breakfast, and hot sheriffs (or carpenters or foresters!) who are always magically single and ready for commitment. I’d move to that town, too, if I could.

Cancel the WeddingCarolyn T. Dingman’s debut novel, Cancel the Wedding, gives us a unique spin on this familiar motif. The novel is targeted toward fans of Emily Giffin and Jennifer Weiner, and while I suppose it could fall under the umbrella of Chick Lit, Dingman does not hesitate to push the boundaries in ways that other writers might not. This is Chick Lit through wavy glasses, where her small town is harboring some very dark secrets and her heroine is consumed by much more than her love life.

The novel follows Olivia, a woman who hates her job, is reluctantly engaged and recently lost her mother to cancer. In a spur-of-the-moment trip, she decides to take her precocious 14-year-old niece, Logan, back to her mother’s Southern hometown in order to learn more about her past. What Olivia finds is a cute small town—sort of. The locals are eccentric, sure, but they’re also harboring some dark secrets. Olivia’s innocent search quickly turns into a full-blown mystery, complete with unexplained deaths, lost towns and forgotten loves.

She has her hot “sheriff,” of course. In this case it’s Elliot, owner of the local paper, and Olivia’s study-buddy while she researches her mother’s past. But while Elliot is immediately intrigued by Olivia, single he is not. Neither is she. And this is where the wavy-glasses come in; Olivia is a complicated heroine forced to confront some hard truths about the choices she’s made in her life. Like why she’s drinking so much. Or why she said yes to Leo, the fiancé she’s not even sure she likes. And Elliot, while charming and likeable, has some tough decisions to make as well.

But, regardless of its complexities, in many ways Cancel the Wedding still fits the mold of the small-town romance. These novels are about fantasy, about a place that seems lost in our modern, over-populated world. Pick up a Lucky Harbor novel by Jill Shalvis, or one of Lisa Kleypas’ Friday Harbor books and you’ll notice an ongoing trend – these stories feel rooted in a past where tree-lined streets are filled with friendly neighbors, where tiny bakeries thrive, where the men go fishing on [giveaway giveaway_id=1638 side=”right”]Fridays and everyone comes out to the town green for picnics on Sundays. And it’s not just books either. This is the fantasy behind shows like Gilmore Girls and Hart of Dixie – who, incidentally, share the same small town-square set.

From the very first page of Cancel the Wedding, it is clear that small town life is going to save Olivia in some way. But this is no ordinary romance novel; in this rich and intense story, that romantic fantasy is hard won. The past here is not glorified but instead filled with painful secrets. Discovering the truth might eventually lead to cleansing, but first Olivia has to walk through the fire. The way I see it, it’s the best of both worlds – a novel that allows for the possibility of fantasy, but only after the characters deal with some heavy doses of reality. Family is redefined, horrible truths are uncovered (sometimes literally), and yes, at times the reality can be hard to take. But doesn’t that just make the fantasy all the more worth it in the end?