Envy by Sandra Brown
(Warner, $25.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-52713-0
****
In the prologue, a crusty old mariner in Key West rents a boat to three young people, two men and a woman. Only one man, bruised and battered, returns. He tells of a fight on board ending with the disappearance of the other two at sea. When asked what he believes was the source of the fight, he answers, "Envy."

Maris Matherly-Reed is an executive with her father Daniel's prestigious New York literary publishing company, Matherly Press, as is her husband, Noah Reed. Maris and Noah have been married for nearly two years, and she senses that all is not well. Noah had a reputation as a womanizer before their marriage, and she fears he may be returning to his old ways.

Maris tackles a pile of unsolicited manuscripts. Among them is the prologue to Envy. The author is identified only by the initials P.M.E. with the address St. Anne's Island, Georgia. Maris is immediately intrigued by the prologue. Her attempts to reach the author prove fruitless, but he phones her in the night. Even more intrigued by the combative tone of his conversation, she decides to travel to Georgia to meet the mysterious P.M.E. Moreover, she feels she needs some time away from Noah to think.

She discovers upon arriving at St. Anne's Island that P.M.E. is a wheelchair-bound, antisocial near-recluse, Parker Evans. He lives in an old plantation house undergoing renovation along with Mike Strothers, an older man who is described as his valet. Maris learns that Parker decided to send the manuscript prologue to her based upon an article about her in a magazine. She manages to talk Parker into giving her the next chapter in his book, a narrative about two characters, Roark and Todd. Maris senses that Envy is going to be a great book. Even though she rarely works as an editor any more, she decides Matherly Press will publish it, and she will edit it herself.

Meanwhile, Noah is secretly conspiring with his lover, columnist Nadia Schuller, to sell Matherly Press, reaping a huge profit for himself. Maris's preoccupation with Envy and its mysterious author keeps her conveniently blind to his plotting.

Gradually Maris will start to see that there is more behind Noah's actions than merely infidelity and more to Parker's manuscript than she'd ever suspected.

In Envy, popular author Sandra Brown proves herself far removed from her beginnings as a writer of category romances. Since turning her talents to mainstream books, she has produced a number of works of romantic suspense. With this, her most recent book, the focus is on the suspense with slight attention to the romance.

Envy is more intricately plotted than Ms. Brown's previous books; the story unfolds via a framing device: a book-within-a-book. (The manuscript portions are distinguished by a different typeface. Although the author makes an attempt to bring a rougher, more virile style to those sections, the writing isn't all that different from her usual. Readers don't have to fear wading through pages of bad Hemingway.) Readers may have suspicions that the purported manuscript has to have some relationship to the primary plot, but the connection is revealed gradually with the full scope clear only as the story nears its climax. Readers may be privy to more details than the heroine - for example, we know early on that Parker is deliberately using her in his scheme - but the hints and clues within the manuscript are disclosed to the unwary heroine and readers at the same time. Thus, readers and the heroine finally discover the extent of the villain's treachery simultaneously.

[A word of advice: If you're the type of reader who often peeks ahead at a book's ending - and I confess that I am, I urge you to resist when reading Envy. Part of the reading pleasure is figuring out who's who and what happened along with the heroine.]

After Standoff and The Switch, two books that suffered from shallow character development, the author has fortunately resumed creating multi-dimensional characters. Five of the book's characters - Maris, Noah, Parker, Daniel, and Nadia - are well developed with sufficient information regarding their backgrounds and goals to make them credible.

The hero and heroine are both flawed individuals. Maris comes across as a devoted daughter, a loving, trusting wife, a dedicated editor/publisher but also a little superficial. She seems to have married Noah primarily because he is the author of her favorite book without having looked more deeply into his past, his motivation, his commitment. Parker barely qualifies as a hero except in the sense of a synonym for protagonist. He seems almost Machiavellian in his plotting - he is willing to use anyone and any means to achieve his revenge without care for the consequences. While the readers can sympathize with the extent of his past suffering and his disability, he remains somewhat unlikeable throughout the book.

I have to admit that I think the initial event which precipitates the rest of the action - an editor pursues an anonymous author solely on the basis of a prologue to an unsolicited manuscript - is in reality extremely unlikely, right up there with winning the Powerball lottery. But putting that reservation aside, I can strongly recommend Envy. Sandra Brown's many fans will consider this a must-read, and it's likely to gain her an even wider readership.

--Lesley Dunlap


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