Heart of Gold by Elaine Alberro
(Pinnacle Encanto, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-786-01060-6
Heart of Gold features a timely hero. Alejandro Sandoval, former Olympic swimmer, escapes from Cuba on a raft with several other people, ultimately ending up homeless in Miami. Unfortunately, this interesting premise is overshadowed by clumsy, unpolished writing and a cast of characters so distasteful that the hero is left shining like a lonely beacon in a polluted harbor. Much as I've enjoyed several of the Encanto releases, this is one that does the line no credit.

After a week at sea in which several traumatic events occur, Alejandro arrives in Key West, where he's helped by an acquaintance to find a job as a swimming instructor in Miami. Alejandro has plans to locate his father, who abandoned his mother before Alejandro was born, and his half-brother, Carlos. He also dreams of finding the perfect woman, a lifemate. A true love.

Enter Natalia Perez, age twenty-three. Natalia, a former schoolteacher, is the TV hostess for Good Morning Miami, a job thrown her way courtesy of her uncle, the mayor. This unpleasant bit of nepotism did nothing to endear Natalia to me, and her avaricious mother, sister, and gold-digging girlfriends paint an unflattering portrait of Cuban women in general. Mama urges Natalia to reunite with her cheating boyfriend because "He has the right background and knows all the right people. Natalia would never have a hard day in her life if she married into that family". This attitude is echoed by one of the girlfriends:

"A good heart doesn't cut it these days. Times have changed. If he can't pay for my vacations abroad and my shopping sprees at Neiman Marcus, then why bother?"

Natalia, for her part, ponders whether she should return to teaching, but

"The truth was that hosting a TV show was fun, and she especially enjoyed reaching out to her public in Miami. Besides, she couldn't have turned down such a lucrative offer from her dear uncle. As the city's mayor, he had vast connections, and he never missed an opportunity to help out his."

Nice to know that a degree in communications or journalism or broadcasting is totally unnecessary in this day and age. All you need is a little family graft and corruption, and you've got yourself your very own "public", at the tender age of 23.

Then the name-dropping starts. Armani and Ralph Lauren. BMW and Mercedes. Silk dresses and designer shoes. Five-star hotels for breakfast (we even get a detailed list of what the characters eat, just so we know how ritzy they are). All this by page 35. Yes, yes, we get the idea. These folks like Living Large and that's their goal in life. But for heaven's sake, this is supposed to be a romance. What about Alejandro?

Natalia and Alejandro finally meet around page 45, when she gets a flat tire and stupidly walks alone down a mean street at night to try and find a gas station. Of course, two thugs approach. Alejandro intervenes, and the book shows a flash of promise. He's now homeless, living under a bridge, having lost his job. Seems his half-brother is wanted for murder, and Alejandro has been recognized as a relative. I thought Sandoval was a fairly common name, and since Alejandro had never met the half-brother, this was a plot contrivance that just didn't work.

Natalia can't deny her attraction, and she returns the next day with a bag of food for him. Alejandro is the antithesis of her social climbing dreams. What's a girl to do? They begin to meet in semi-secret, but ultimately Alejandro shows up at her parent's home (at Natalia's invitation) and she must introduce him. Here Natalia, showing all the character and spunk of a wet mop, fabricates a chi-chi background for him so she won't be humiliated in front of her family and friends. After all, his brother's a murderer.

Is it any wonder I wanted to slap this book shut and heave it into the trash? But every book we review gets read cover to cover, and to be honest, there was a tiny voice inside insisting that this had to have some redeeming value.

The story grinds on to its predictable conclusion, with an ending that is as silly as it is contrived, saved by a phone call at exactly the most opportune moment. Even Alejandro's estranged father, who had told him to get lost, comes back to do something unbelievable.

It really bothered me that almost everyone in this book seems to be fixated on money and material possessions. Even Alejandro can't wait until he can use "the right soap" and wear "the right clothes". Mama's character vacillates between "Find a rich guy who'll take care of you" to, later in the book, "Don't mess up your career". Natalia's weak protests that she wants true love don't work, given that she's never able to stand up for herself. Even the ex-boyfriend pushes her around. And the attitude of the Miamians toward the raft people is nothing short of vile at times. Natalia's friends complain about the "wretched rafters" and smirk that "we'll be outnumbered by them soon if they don't start shipping them back. They all look so dirty and miserable". I half expected them to break into a chorus of "eeeewww!" You're judged by the company you keep. Our heroine didn't have much to feel superior about.

Of course, perhaps that was the author's intent -- to show that the "dirty" refugee was purer at heart than the "clean" Cubans who were fortunate enought to live in Miami (and drive Mercedes and BMWs and shop at Bloomingdales, etc.) If so, the message was all but obscured.

It's hard to know who to point a finger at. The author, for not working at her craft more? The editors, for not insisting on a rewrite? All I can say is, judge for yourself. But don't say I recommended Heart of Gold, because I can't.

--Cathy Sova

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