Lorna Landvik won legions of devoted readers with her debut novel, Patty Jane's House of Curl, and kept them with Your Oasis on Flame Lake. She's likely to delight her fans again with The Tall Pine Polka, which has more than a few things in common with her earlier novels: Landvik returns to her beloved small-town Minnesota setting, the action centers on a friendly gathering place (where the title "dance" routinely takes place), and the story is about the bittersweet bonds between women.
In northern Minnesota, the small town of Tall Pine nestles among woods and lakes. It's a little tourist town that caters in the summer months to travelers from across the country looking for the chance to do a little fishing and get away from it all. At Lee O'Leary's Cup O'Delight Cafe, named for the extravagantly delicious coffee brewed by its proprietor, the locals meet to eat, drink, gossip and simply enjoy one another's company. Lee, a plus-size redheaded East Coast heiress, transplanted herself in Tall Pine to escape her abusive ex-husband. Her best friend, Fenny Ness, is a twenty-two year old Tall Pine native who runs her late parents' bait-and-craft shops. Still deeply mourning her adventurous parents' deaths after several years, Fenny is often accused by friends of being more of a little old lady than even a little old lady could be. Despite her occasional primness, Fenny is warmly cared for by the others in the little group that meets after hours at the Cup O'Delight for an evening of friendly fellowship now and again.
When the obnoxious writer of a new Hollywood screenplay, "Ike and Inga," comes to Tall Pine scouting locations, he knows he's found his "Inga" when he spies Fenny in the window of her shop. Coaxed and cajoled by Lee and the rest of her friends, homebody Fenny finally agrees to fly to California to do a screen test. She meets with the screenwriter's B-movie producing uncle and gets the part in an unusual way that gives the phrase "casting couch" a wickedly new scatalogical meaning. She returns to Tall Pine, and filming soon begins under the dictatorial eye of a bitter, egomaniacal director, with many of Fenny's Tall Pine friends acting as extras.
Through all this, Fenny is finally opening up emotionally again to a tall, dark stranger in Tall Pine, the handsome and warm half-Polynesian, half-Native American, Big Bill. The only problem is, Lee saw him first, and Lee's in love with him. Fate contrives to prevent the already reluctant Fenny from confessing her relationship with Bill to Lee, and when the news is finally sprung on Lee the friendship between the two appears to be irrevocably over. Bill, Lee and Fenny each go their separate ways to think things over, and a bleak comedy of errors goes extremely bad as misunderstandings and mean-hearted meddling by others threaten to ruin a beautiful friendship.
The Tall Pine Polka is a novel divided in tone; it's light-hearted and funny throughout the first half, tragic and more darkly humorous in the second part, like a sunny day at the lake turning ominous as thunderheads move in over placid waters. That a relationship like Lee and Fenny's can survive such a string of betrayals may seem overly optimistic, but friendship and love can run as deep as a feud in the forced proximity inherent in small-town life. The offbeat characters who people the rest of Tall Pine provide a comforting cushion for Fenny and Lee to fall back on; that may be the greatest small-town truth in Landvik's third novel.