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Breaking the Silence
by Diane Chamberlain
(Mira, $5.99, G) ISBN 1-55166-484-4
In a fair world, Diane Chamberlain would be as popular as Barbara Delinsky. She writes strong, thoughtful women's fiction that is a little darker than Delinsky's but no less effective. I don't think Breaking the Silence will be her breakthrough novel, but it's another interesting release.

When Laura Brandon rushes to her father's deathbed, she is surprised to hear him ask her, with his dying breath, to look after Sarah Tolley, a woman she has never heard of before. When Laura tells her husband, Ray, of her father's strange request, Ray is surprisingly adamant that Laura should have nothing to do with this woman. Nevertheless, Laura tracks her down, and finds that Sarah Tolley is an old woman in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease with no family and no apparent tie to her father.

But an unexpected tragedy results from Laura's visit. Ray, who has suffered from depression for years, commits suicide. The indirect victim of this shocking death is Laura's five year-old daughter, Emma, who finds her father's body and refuses to speak another word from that point on.

Hardly a walk in the park for the first 35 pages of the novel. And things stay somber, as Laura tries to cope with her losses by reviving a painful memory. Six years ago, at a party, the usually reserved Laura drank too much and shared a one-night stand with a handsome stranger. When she became pregnant, her friend Ray offered marriage. Now Emma's therapist believes that a healthy relationship with an adult male would help cure the girl's muteness and fear of men caused by Ray's suicide, so Laura decides that it's time to track down Emma's biological father.

As she tries to convince commitment-shy Dylan Geer that he belongs in Emma's life, she also spends more time with Sarah. The old woman begins telling Laura stories about her career during the 1950's as a psychiatric nurse. Unwittingly, Sarah was drawn into the secret Cold War anti-Communist plans of a brilliant but paranoid man. Her involvement destroyed her family and left her isolated. Yet Laura is shocked to discover that she and Sarah are linked more closely than she can imagine.

Breaking the Silence is almost unbearably grim, especially during Sarah's flashback scenes. Though bleak, they are the most powerful and effective parts of the book and they completely overshadow the romance. The relationship between Laura and Dylan never really catches fire. Laura is supposed to be a world-famous astronomer who has discovered ten comets, yet her initial behavior with Dylan ranges from irrational to flighty. It's difficult to understand why Dylan is eventually willing to chuck his playboy lifestyle for Laura, other than the fact that he has come to care for Emma.

As with most Chamberlain novels, there is some semblance of a happily ever after, but a fair share of bitter along with the sweet. Sarah's story verges on the incredible, but as the author notes in a preface, it is based on real events. I won't forget that part of the book, but Laura and Ryan will fade quickly. Other Chamberlain novels (including Reflection, which I reviewed two years ago) more successfully balance romance with an interesting, suspenseful plot. But if you like well-written women's fiction and don't mind the serious nature of the plot, you will find Breaking the Silence a compelling read.

--Susan Scribner

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