Sing Me Home

Home at Last by Jerri Corgiat
(Signet Eclipse, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-21621-0
Eight years after moving to Kansas City from a small town in Missouri, Mari O'Malley has little to show for herself. An unhappy affair with a married man has left her with nothing but guilt and shame. Her design business is bankrupt, and she is broke. When her sisters suggest she returns to Cordelia to take care of their mother, currently recovering from surgery, she has no good reasons to refuse.

Once there, Mari comes face-to-face with her childhood best friend, Andy Eppelwaite. They had parted company when she had suspected he would be following in the footsteps of his no-account father. So she is a little surprised to discover that, despite his troubled start, he has gone further than she. With plans to continue graduate studies in psychology, he is working for the summer as a horticultural therapist at a nearby camp for troubled boys. As it turns out, Mari's nephew Michael is being forced to attend the camp. This gives Mari and Andy more than enough opportunity to renew their youthful friendship and explore adult possibilities.

Despite old ties and new attractions, there is plenty to keep them apart. They both have personal flaws they need to confront and overcome. She is far too headstrong and self-obsessed, he much too self-righteous. Small wonder they have opposing ideas about how the boys at the camp should be treated and about how seriously the rules should be taken. Then, of course, they have different aspirations: Mari is set on returning to the bright city lights, Andy wants the small town life. Last but not least, she is afraid to tell him about her affair and all the more so when she realizes he has personal reasons to be unforgiving about adultery.

Needless to say, the road towards self-awareness, understanding, forgiveness and mutual acceptance is not easy. To her credit, Corgiat doesn't simplify things any more than she reduces her characters to cardboard paragons. For every two steps forward, there is one step backward, but by the end of the book, the characters have grown - and believably so. Self-indulgent Mari finds a new purpose in life while Andy's learns a lesson or two about facing residual but paralyzing anger from the past.

Unfortunately, this slow process becomes somewhat tedious. (I know, I know, we readers are never satisfied. When we're not complaining about unrealistic character growth, we find the plotting boring.) There is some attempt to reintroduce tension and to renew our interest through suddenly revealed secrets, minor mysteries and dangerous incidents revolving either around the lovers or the boys camp. But none of these plot twists come as real surprises - not the reasons behind Andy's unforgiving attitude; not the identity of the troublemaker at the camp; not the explanation for Michael's hostile behavior; not even the near-tragic events close to the end.

If in spite of a certain monotony I kept reading Home At Last, it was because of Corgiat's fine style and her attempts to give different characters a distinctive voice. Mari's in particular stands out. Her frequent acerbic asides convincingly show her internal contradictions as both a Manolo-Blahnik-wearing city chick and a dutiful daughter of Small Town, U.S.A.

Home At Last is the third in a series of book about the O'Malley family. It is not necessary to have read the previous novels to understand the developments in this one, even if Lily's and Jon's marital problems loom largely. I suspect readers already familiar with that couple will appreciate seeing them deal with a whole different set of issues. Romance may end in happy-ever-after, but relationship building - like life - goes on forever.

--Mary Benn

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