The Day We Met

Once Around

Sleeping Alone

At Last by Barbara Bretton
(Berkley, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-425-17737-8
Barbara Bretton's latest single title contemporary, At Last, is larger in scope and more dramatic than her other recent efforts. This gives her an opportunity to stretch her talent, resulting in a largely rewarding but sometimes frustrating romance. I give her credit for reaching, instead of just resting on her laurels.

The novel spans 25 years in the small coastal town of Idle Point, Maine. The first 50 pages describe Gracie Taylor's first few months of kindergarten. With her mother long dead, and her father an absent alcoholic, Gracie is being raised by her Gramma Del. She doesn't have the same nice clothes as the other children, but she has been raised with love and pride.

On the first day of school, Gracie falls in love with classmate Noah Chase, and never falls out. Unfortunately, Noah is the son of Simon Chase, the town's richest man, and Simon has big plans for his boy. Although Noah is happy at the local public school, his future is destined to be full of boarding schools and prep schools, in preparation for his Ivy League college education. Noah's father, Simon, has a long-standing grudge against Gracie's father, and tries to keep the two children apart whenever possible. Serious, studious and shy Gracie doesn't understand the antagonism, but she doesn't let that disturb her hero-worshipping of Noah.

Flash forward twelve years or so. Noah has been expelled from a series of boarding schools, so he's spending some time in Idle Point while his father tries to buy his way back into another one. Now Noah falls head over heels in love with Gracie, who has indulged her lifelong affection for animals and is working part-time for the local veterinarian before she goes off to college. Their love affair is sweet but secret. Neither Noah nor Gracie know why their families dislike each other, but they're taking no chances. Unfortunately, neither of them have reckoned with Simon, who takes drastic steps to force the couple far apart from each other.

The last 150 pages of the book take place eight years later. Simon's plan has succeeded, but at a price no one expected. Gracie now knows at least part of the secret of the Chase/Taylor feud that doomed their affair. When she returns to Idle Point for the first time to attend her father's wedding, she assumes that Noah will be long gone. But to her dismay, she learns that Noah has also just come home to Idle Point, and he's not alone. Even worse, she realizes that their attraction is still just as strong.

At Last is strongest during its first and third sections. As Bretton describes Gracie's childhood, a poignant portrait emerges of a motherless child who yearns for a real Mommy like everyone else - one who will make her a "mommy sweater" like all the other girls have. The early interactions between the confident Noah and the adoring Gracie are cute but realistic.

The reunion between the mature Noah and Gracie is dramatically effective, especially when the two face the complicated circumstances that continue to keep them apart. By the time the happily ever after finally rolls around, the reader knows these two characters very well and wants them to fulfill the promise they showed as children.

The novel is enlivened by interesting secondary characters, including Noah and Gracie's classmate, Laquita, the oldest child in a prolific hippie family. She ends up playing a surprise role in Gracie's life. Gracie's father, Ben, redeems himself over the course of the novel, giving Gracie the opportunity to come to terms with some of the hurt and anger she has held inside since childhood.

I have two major quibbles with the novel. The middle section, as young lovers Gracie and Noah realize their true feelings for each other, drags a little. I found myself missing the child-sized version of the couple, who were much more appealing

Also, far too much of the story rests on The Big Secret (a close relative to that pet peeve, The Big Misunderstanding). Throughout the novel, one character knows all of the secrets - those that could push Noah and Gracie apart, and those that could reunite them. For the reader, it's fairly easy to guess the nature of that secret (Bretton drops several hints) but hard to understand why the designated secret holder doesn't come forward much earlier. Of course, if the secrets had emerged eight years ago, we'd have no reason for the novel, but the reader can't help being a tad frustrated at the manipulation.

Still, Bretton's skill at characterization, evident in her depiction of Gracie and Noah at these three key points in their lives, makes At Last a recommended read.

--Susan Scribner

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