The Dewey Decimal System of Love
by Josephine Carr
(NAL, $12.95, G) ISBN 0-451-20971-0
The theme for this book might be The Shoop Shoop Song. The heroine looks for sign after sign from the man she’s in love with and finds that while she might be fooled by how he looks and what he says and what he does, when she wants to know the truth, “it’s in his kiss.”

Ally Sheffield is a 40-year-old librarian. She has never married, but, after 15 years of celibacy, she’s fallen in love with Aleksi Kullio, the new (married) conductor of the Philadelphia Philharmonic.

Suddenly Ally, who has been content with her solitary life – even protective of it – is volunteering to organize the Philharmonic’s archives, cutting her hair, having laser surgery so she can get rid of her glasses, and initiating contact with the charismatic maestro. Part of her knows her behavior is a bit bizarre, but, what the heck. “I’d been rational my whole life,” she realizes, “and frankly, I was sick of it.”

When Aleksi’s wife starts coming into the library, asking for information about obscure poisons and claiming to be writing a mystery novel, Ally becomes convinced that the man she loves is in danger. She starts to watch Michelle Kullio, even enlisting a friend to help her follow the woman (who, in Ally’s opinion, is clearly unstable).

An unexpected side effect of her secret passion is that while Ally is busy creating a new self-image other people start seeing her differently as well, including one of her best friends – her womanizing boss.

While I’m not usually a big chick-lit fan, I enjoyed this book very much. It’s funny (chuckle funny, which I prefer to heavy-handed attempts to be laugh-out-loud funny) and the author does a great job of allowing the reader to see both the positive and negative effects of Ally’s obsession even while the character is oblivious. In other words, she doesn’t judge Ally. This may be one advantage of writing in the first person – Ally can tell us things with a straight face without the implied opinion of a narrator, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions.

One of the benefits of this was our ability to see Ally as an individual, rather than the typical stereotype of a librarian as a frumpish, socially inept virgin. As my synopsis of the story may indicate, some of Ally’s life approaches these stereotypes, but spending time in her head makes two things clear: the superficiality of the stereotype, and the fact that, whatever the outside world may think, that isn’t how Ally sees herself.

As a result, I felt a kind of exasperated affection for Ally. She was acting nuts, but I suspect that anyone who has ever been captured by the weird, helpless power of an inappropriate infatuation will sympathize – even if they didn’t go so far as to tail the victim’s wife. If you have gone your entire life without experiencing anything even remotely like this, you may not ‘get’ the book (and you might want to have that second X chromosome tested to make sure it’s actually functioning).

This book is not a romance. It has romantic elements in it (for example, a kiss does give her a blinding flash of insight into the identity of her soul mate), but it isn’t really about Ally finding a man, it’s about Ally finding herself. As a result, the males are more like emotional and intellectual puzzles that Ally must solve in order to grow. We know only as much about the male characters as we need to, and completely through her eyes. This makes it that much easier to understand her thought processes, unencumbered by what the other characters are thinking and feeling.

It also means that the author can keep us guessing about how everything will resolve itself right down to the wire, which is refreshing. Everything, that is, except maybe the identity of “Mr. Right.” Romance readers may figure this out more quickly – but we’re good at that.

This book is a rare combination of lightheartedness and insight that I found thoroughly enjoyable.

-- Judi McKee

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