ISN'T IT ROMANTIC?

An Entertainment

By Ron Hansen

HarperCollins. 256 pp. $17.95

Ron Hansen is awfully versatile. He's written Westerns (Desperadoes and The Assassination of Jesse James by Coward Robert Ford), a prize-winning short-story collection (Nebraska) and a National Book Award-nominated mystery (Atticus). He explored religious passion in the widely acclaimed Mariette in Ecstasy and probed questions of humanity and evil in Hitler's Niece. He's also penned a children's book, a screenplay and a book of essays about faith. It would seem, given this impressive and eclectic list, that there would be no genre that Hansen couldn't successfully tackle.

But, alas, there is. His latest offering, Isn't it Romantic?, is a -- yes -- romantic comedy, and as the cloying tagline implies, it wants badly to amuse. But the story, about a young French couple contemplating their future against the backdrop of a small Nebraska town, is hokey and stale. The plot devices Hansen employs -- cultural misunderstandings, linguistic barriers, Midwestern simpletons mingling with European sophisticates -- are hackneyed and often result in little more than second-rate slapstick.

The slim volume tells the story of Natalie Clairvaux, a 26-year-old Parisian librarian specializing in Americana, who travels to the United States to escape her philandering fiance{acute}, Pierre Smith, the scion of a French vintner. Natalie boards a See America bus at the New York Port Authority and finds herself whisked to such palaces of American kitsch as Goodyear's World of Rubber in Akron, Ohio, and the headquarters of Maytag Appliances in Newton, Iowa. At the Red Lion Inn in Omaha -- a city Natalie is thrilled to visit because it recalls her hometown near Omaha Beach in Normandy -- Pierre tracks down his wayward bride-to-be. After bickering about Pierre's infidelity -- "But I'm French!" he cries in defense -- they reluctantly board the bus together.

On a Wednesday, when the bus breaks down in the Nebraska Prairie -- a place with "skies of a Windex Blue" -- Natalie informs Pierre that they must decide whether they will marry by the following Saturday. With the deadline looming, they abandon the See America tour and wander into the Main Street Cafe{acute} in the town of Seldom (pop. 395), where they are met by the curious stares of local townsfolk. In one of the book's many implausible coincidences, Natalie and Pierre arrive in Seldom just as the Revels, the town's annual celebration commemorating Bernard LeBoeuf, its 19th-century French founder, are about to begin. They are asked to join as king and queen of the festivities.

Almost immediately, the pair is plunged into the town's daily life. Natalie stays at Mrs. Christiansen's rooming house and helps serve coffee at the cafe{acute}, while Pierre is whisked away by Owen Nelson, an aspiring winemaker who wants help getting his Big Red label off the ground. Natalie and Pierre also find romance in Seldom -- though not with each other. Natalie is charmed by Dick Tupper, a man with "no outlaw in him, no shame in his past"; he is the opposite, in other words, of the shifty Pierre. Dick takes Natalie horseback riding in countryside that, she says, looks "like a cigarette ad," and impresses her with his knowledge of Nebraska fauna. Meanwhile, Pierre becomes smitten with the smoldering Iona, who seems uncomplicated and compassionate compared to sarcastic Natalie.

As it happens, both Natalie and Pierre plan to meet their paramours at -- surprise! -- the same time and place, midnight Friday at Mrs. Christiansen's. This endless episode, full of pratfalls, climaxes with all of the book's wacky characters gathering in the wee hours of the morning to eat, drink and debate who should marry whom.

One wonders whether Isn't it Romantic? would not have worked better as a movie or sitcom, in which the physical comedy would have had some visual immediacy, instead of falling flat on the page. Now that Hansen has gotten this screwball comedy out of his system, we can only hope he will return to making the absorbing literary fiction he's known for. *

Lori Leibovich is an editor for Salon.com.