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Tuesday, December 05, 2006


****½ One More Time by Claire Cross. Women's fiction.









Normally, Berkley does an excellent job providing covers that are eye-catching and fit the subject and tone of the book. But there's got to be an exception to every rule, and this is it. The cover suggests chick lit or romantic comedy--that is, something humorous. And this is not a funny book. The heroine does have a thing for lingerie, but it's all bras and panties, not corsets. And there are two poodles in the book, but they're not the heroine's, and they don't attack her lingerie.

What was even more disorienting is that romantic comedy is what I usually expect from this author--granted, romantic comedy with a solid, serious base, a la Jennifer Crusie. So when I started reading, and discovered it's a book about a marriage in trouble, I was taken aback.

If you've browsed through here long, you know I'm not a fan of mid-life, marriage-in-trouble stories--a.k.a. women's fiction. I tend to find the characters whiny and/or shallow, all too ready to blame everything that's wrong in their lives on their unsympathetic, ratbastard husbands. But I've read--and loved--enough from Claire Cross that I trusted her enough to read with an open mind. It didn't take long. Both Matt and Leslie grabbed me from the start.

Leslie is a driven, tenured college professor. Matt is a lawyer who's just lost (deliberately, as it turns out) a big case that would have given him a lucrative partnership in his father's firm. He's shocked when he comes home triumphant, expecting Leslie to be proud of him for standing up for his principles, and instead she's disappointed in him. Then hard on the heels of that blow, his father commits suicide--timing it precisely so that Matt will find his body.

So, buoyed by the logic of quite a lot of alcohol, he decides to leave. For New Orleans, where his youngest brother is in jail--again--and needs someone to bail him out. And, not coincidentally, where the ex-girlfriend who's kept in touch all these years lives.

Meanwhile, Leslie's dealing with a new department head who's demanding a lowering of standards to make the "customers" happy, and her mother-in-law who, thanks to the machinations of the recently deceased, has been kicked out of her condo, and who's also just inherited the guardianship of a pair of very wealthy poodles. And a teenage daughter with a weight problem.

Claire Cross takes a lot of risks with this book, but it works. The scenes, especially in the beginning of the book, are short, and we jump between Leslie scenes and Matt scenes with almost dizzying rapidity. The result, however, is that I got a very clear sense of how both of them were feeling, and I felt sympathetic to them both. Longer scenes would have had the effect of bonding me to one or the other more strongly--likely whichever character's scene was first--and I'd have been less sympathetic to their "enemy."

There are also dream sequences. I've complained before about dreams in books. They're almost always unnecessary and indulgent, but these work. I'm not going to change my mind about dreams in books in general, but the whimsical/terrifying nature of Leslie's dreams, and the way they change through the book, are a nice way to show her subconscious dealing with her various issues.

The daughter is frighteningly adult for 13--mine wasn't like that for at least 2 more years--but I could buy it, especially given that she's an only child. The mother-in-law is convincing as a (mostly) recovering alcoholic, as is her love/hate relationship with her recently deceased husband. And Sharan, Matt's ex-girlfriend is wonderfully complex--the free spirit artist of the girl she was in college is still visible inside the woman she's become, but life has changed her, and Matt's arrival changes her more. It would have been so easy to make her a 2-dimensional bitch of a husband-stealer, but she's not. Even Sharan is sympathetic.

Matt and Leslie are, of course, the center of the book, and they're so real you probably know them. They've screwed up their marriage in the most believable and, sadly, common way possible: by not communicating. They still have a great sex life--when they get to it, that is. And they talk. But both of them assume that the other knows how they feel. Matt assumes Leslie knows he doesn't want to join his father's firm, and that he can't stomach the thought of defending obviously guilty and remorseless criminals. Leslie assumes that Matt knows she's tired of carrying the burden of financial stability on her shoulders. Those assumptions lead to further assumptions about how the other would react. The most telling detail about their marriage is that they don't fight.

I absolutely loved this story--though I docked it a half star because it made me moody until it was done. The lessons Leslie and Matt learned are, I believe, essential for a solid, happy, and long-lasting marriage. Don't get the wrong idea--it's not remotely preachy. It's a story about a couple who might have gone on for years, content in their assumptions and their okay marriage, until life crashed in on them. And I was so thrilled that they didn't find that the answer was to ditch the marriage and start over--with the same mistakes--with someone new. I liked these characters. I believed in these characters. I ached for them, and rejoiced for them at the end.

...more

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