Crowfoot Ridge by Ann Brandt
(Harper, $20, PG) ISBN 0-06-019215-1
(Harper paperback release date 3/00)
Crowfoot Ridge is a very credible entry in the "lost first love" and/or "summer romance" subgenre. I'd rate it several notches higher than similar recent efforts by Annie Garrett and K.C. McKinnon. Ann Brandt gets extra points for originality but her inexperience as a novelist at times becomes glaringly obvious.

Avery Kessler reaches her mid-thirties and realizes that she has been coasting on neutral for the past twenty years. As a result, she hates her life and the person she has become. She works with her husband's real estate firm selling pre-fabricated homes to wealthy senior citizens -- and in the process contributing to the destruction of Florida's vanishing natural wilderness. Her childless marriage to her husband Ken is superficial and joyless. Ken is having an affair with his assistant, but Avery is neither shocked nor particularly concerned.

As a child, Avery and her family spent their summer vacations at a farm in the mountains of North Carolina, near the scenic Crowfoot Ridge. It was there that Avery met the Marshall family, North Carolina natives who welcomed her each year. Sylvia Marshall was Avery's best friend, and her older brother Mars was special too. But Avery and Mars had only just begun to explore what they could mean to each other when a shocking incident caused an abrupt end to their relationship and their innocence. Avery left Crowfoot Ridge for the last time when she was 16 and never returned.

Now that Avery realizes her marriage to Ken is over, she has a sudden yearning to go back to Crowfoot Ridge to see her old friends. Mars is married and a father, and Avery vows not to interfere with his relationship. But when she comes to understand the status of his marriage, a complex but mutually beneficial relationship develops among Avery, Mars and his wife.

Crowfoot Ridge is more "women's fiction" than a romance novel. The emphasis is on Avery's road to self-discovery and happiness, rather than on the dynamics of the relationship between her and Mars. Seen entirely through Avery's point of view, Mars is a paragon of rustic perfection -- a hunky yet sensitive musician and carpenter. He just might be every woman's fantasy, but he never quite feels like a real person to the reader.

This is Ann Brandt's first novel, written at the ripe old age of 60 and self-published until Harper purchased the rights (an encouraging note for all of us aspiring novelists). But sometimes her writing style is awkward and amateurish, with mixed metaphors, awkward dialogue and overly flowery language that doesn't fit with the rest of the text. But she sets up an intriguing, dramatic plot, as well as a unique dynamic between Avery, Mars and his wife. I couldn't always predict what would happen next, which is a refreshing change from many of the novels I've read lately.

Crowfoot Ridge was a pleasant place to visit. She may be a late bloomer, but I hope Ann Brandt has more stories to tell in the coming years.

--Susan Scribner

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