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Heartthrob by Suzanne Brockmann
(Fawcett, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-449-00255-1
****
Heard about truth in advertising? I don't think the publicity department at Fawcett has. Or else they didn't bother to read the book. I picked up Heartthrob thinking it was going to be a funny read. Certainly the back blurb could be so interpreted. "Movie producer with potentially difficult star has to babysit him twenty-four hours a day." Although to give the blurb writer credit, it does refer to his "darkly haunted past." But what really raised my expectations was the cover quote: "A master of love and laughter" says you know who.

So I sat down expecting a light and sexy read. What did I get? An immensely powerful romance that deals with some of the most pressing concerns in today's society: addiction and recovery, sexual assault, child abuse, homosexuality and interracial romance. Am I disappointed? No way! Heartthrob is a wonderful contemporary romance.

Kate O'Laughlin is an independent film producer putting together her first movie project. She has a great script. (She wrote it herself, but doesn't want anyone to know this since she is well aware that brains and beauty are usually seen as antithetical.) She has a well respected director. What she needs is a leading man. What she doesn't need is Jericho Beaumont.

Five years ago, Jericho was at the very pinnacle of success with four Oscar nominations and the top box office spot for a male star. But he lost it all thanks to drinking and addiction to prescription drugs. He has just finished another independent movie and he really wants the role of Virgil Laramie in Kate's film. Although he's been clean for over five years, he is still viewed as a bad risk in the business. This role could put him back on top.

Jericho is so desperate for the part that he actually goes to an open casting call to read. His performance is so good that the director decides on the spot that he is Laramie. Moreover, with Jericho as the lead, two other well known actors are willing to sign on: teenage sensations Susie McCoy and Jamaal Hawkes. Kate is cornered, but it isn't only her money. Her backers are willing to sign Jericho but with killer conditions.

Jericho has to agree to be monitored twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week while the movie is shooting. He has to agree to daily drug tests. He essentially has to give up his freedom. Jericho signs the insulting contract, but he vows to get even with the woman who has imposed such humiliating conditions on him. The plot thickens when the man hired to guard Jericho turns out to be completely unsuitable and Kate can't find a replacement. The only person she can trust to keep Jericho on the straight and narrow is herself. And so they end up sharing a trailer, much to Jericho's delight.

The enforced closeness has the expected results. Kate has already felt attracted to the charismatic movie star. Yet can she trust his feelings? Jericho is such a brilliant actor that Kate is never sure what his motives or his deeply hidden feelings are.

Both Kate and Jericho carry a lot of baggage from their respective pasts. Kate's brief movie career was highlighted by two memorable scenes which fed male fantasies but only made her uncomfortable. Her marriage to a man who didn't know how to spell fidelity left her bruised and insecure. She had a successful career running her family's business, but was always aware that she had to work hard to make people forget how she looked.

Jericho's acting began in childhood as he sought to escape a brutal, alcoholic father by escaping into pretend roles. He survived by burying his feelings so deeply that the real Jericho (or Jed, his actual name) almost never surfaces. And, like many children of alcoholics, he tried to ease his pain by escaping into the bottle. His struggle to stay sober is, indeed, a battle fought one day at a time.

Brockmann makes the developing relationship between these two wounded souls intensely interesting and believable. There are no simple panaceas here, no easy answers. But there is blessed hope, when all is said and done.

Heartthrob also contains a sweet secondary romance between Susie and Jamaal. Susie has been an actor since she was six; she is already a star with her own TV show. This movie will give her the chance to show her very real talent. But she has to contend with an overbearing "stage father" who uses emotional and verbal abuse to control his daughter. She and Jamaal develop first a friendship and then something more, something that at 15 and 18 they are not quite sure how to handle.

Brockmann has written a compelling contemporary romance with characters I really came to care about and who will stay with me for quite a while. This is no glitzy Hollywood romance, but rather a story of how love helped Kate and Jericho to overcome distrust and anger and fear. This is a book I will read again.

--Jean Mason


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