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The Switch by Sandra Brown
(Warner, $25.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-52703-3
***
Melina Lloyd encourages Gillian, her identical twin sister, to switch places with her and escort Christopher Hart, the half Native American/half white astronaut - nicknamed Chief - while he is in Dallas. Melina, who runs a successful media escort service for out-of-town celebrities, is content with her single life. Gillian, however, senses her biological clock is ticking and wants a child. Her current boyfriend Jem has had a vasectomy, and she has undergone artificial insemination at a fertility clinic that very day. Gillian, the shyer twin, eventually agrees to Melinaís proposal.

When Gillian and Chief stop at a fast food restaurant, Dale Gordon, a fertility clinic employee recognizes and greets her. Gillian, who is posing as Melina, explains to Chief she has a twin sister and that he must have confused her for her twin. Gillian and Chief are attracted to each other, and they eventually spend part of the night together with Gillian slipping out in the early morning hours.

Meanwhile, a charismatic religious leader, Brother Gabriel, who operates out of a temple in is taking an interest in Gillian Lloyd. Gordon, fearing the mysterious Program is in jeopardy, immediately contacts Brother Gabriel then proceeds to Gillianís house.

The following morning Gillian is found brutally murdered in her bed. The ugly obscenities scrawled in blood on her bedroom wall indicate that the slaying is connected to Gillianís relationship with Chief. Melina reveals that she and her sister had traded places the previous evening. (She does admit that such conduct is juvenile.)

Chief is questioned by the police. He meets Melina at the police station and is struck by her resemblance to the sister heíd known so briefly but felt about so deeply. The case is quickly closed when evidence pointing to Dale Gordon is soon discovered.

But the police seem to have been too hasty in their conclusions. Melina notices that some of Jemís statements to the police were false, Chief is attacked by men intent on killing him, and Melina recognizes the FBI agents who show up at her house are imposters. The two realize their best hope for survival is in disappearing. They will soon be finding indications of a larger and deeper criminal conspiracy involving fertility programs.

The plot of The Switch is a hodgepodge of story elements from earlier Sandra Brown books with a dollop of malevolent religious cult machinations and fertility clinic perils thrown in for good measure. The author has previously used the identical twin/look-alike mixup concept in a category romance Thursdayís Child and in her contemporary romance Mirror Image. The hero of the category Long Time Coming is another astronaut, and the hero and heroine of Honor Bound are forced into each otherís company on a danger-fraught dash through the American Southwest.

It would be much easier to overlook such unabashed raiding of earlier plots if The Switch featured an engrossing story line or engaging characters. Unfortunately, this romantic suspense novel does not measure up to some of this popular authorís better works. Many of the plot twists seem contrived, and most readers will figure out the surprise ending well before the bookís climax. The romance and sexual tension, usually a hallmark of the authorís writing, are anemic and mostly overshadowed by the suspense aspect of the story.

Furthermore, the character development is weak. The characters are largely one-dimensional, and their motivation is seldom convincing. Melina and Chief seem to be only vaguely cognizant that their individual conduct was the direct cause of Gillianís death. They do a lot of running around with little forethought for where and why. (But thereís still time for Chief to mend an old relationship.) Brother Gabriel is obviously the literary descendant of such real figures as the Rev. Jim Jones and the Heavenís Gate cult. He does not come across as a very believable character, however, because he seems devoid of any of the charm or charisma necessary to beguile a large, blindly devoted following.

The Switch is already appearing on best-seller charts so itís likely to reach a large audience, and Iím sure that long-time fans of Sandra Brown (of which I am one) will consider it a must-read. But with its weaknesses in both plot and character development, many readers may be disappointed.

--Lesley Dunlap


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