Sing Me Home by Jerri Corgiat
(Onyx, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-41128-5
***
Like a game athlete with a limp, this first book overcomes its faults with admirable determination and style. The result is highly readable and highly enjoyable.

Jon Van Castle, a famous country singer, is on tour. It’s brought him back to rural Missouri where he grew up, and where his ex-wife, Belinda, and two young children live. Restless and unsettled, he stops the tour bus in a small town to stretch his legs, but doesn’t get far before he’s mobbed by crazed women fans. He ducks into a children’s bookstore – where the only employee, Lil O’Malley, is the only female in town who has no clue who he is, His strange behavior convinces her he’s a nut case.

Jon buys a raft of books but accidentally leaves one behind. To compensate her younger sister for helping pack up the soon-to-be-closed bookstore, Lil deputizes the star-stuck Mari to deliver the book to Jon at his hotel.

Jon is glad to see Mari. He’s got custody of his troubled young son and daughter while the ex from hell is in drug rehab. After only a few hours of parenting, aided by a marginally competent young nanny, Jon is overwhelmed. Suddenly, it seems like a good idea to propose to Mari – he needs someone to look after his kids, especially when he’s away on tour.

Jon quickly realizes that party-girl Mari is more interested in a celebrity lifestyle than in his frightened kids. He’s still got a problem, though, so when the horrified – and recently unemployed – Lil asks him to call it off, he suggests an alternative. He’ll break up with Mari, if Lil will marry him instead.

The utter predictability of this scenario annoyed me at first, but Ms. Corgiat’s brisk pace and gift for description soon made me forget my misgivings and just go along for the ride.

The author makes no secret of the fact that both Jon and Lil each have good points and bad, and she’s not shy about letting us see them. On the one hand, it was a pleasure to read about characters who are not unrelieved paragons. On the other hand, the author almost took it too far. The truth is that both of these characters are pretty selfish.

For much of the book, even the actions which benefited Jon’s children are made so he can go his on way unencumbered. He may have valid concerns about bringing children into his lifestyle, but for a very long time it never occurs to him that it might be his lifestyle that needs to change. Even when his heart is in the right place, he’s accustomed to taking the easy way out. I think the author sympathized with him in this more than I did.

The same is true of Lil, who is great with the kids, but in her own way equally self-involved. She thinks Jon should change his life, but isn’t willing to change her own. Most telling, she is still wallowing in self pity three years after the death of her first husband. I had the sense that I was supposed to find this touching and loyal, but mostly I kept thinking that she was very, very determined to feel sorry for herself.

I liked seeing both characters grow, but the amount of time I spent thinking each was a complete jerk wasn’t as much fun.

While it takes some time for them to redeem themselves, the sexual tension builds at a much more satisfying pace. It’s gradual, to be sure, but both satisfying and appropriate. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself following the development of their relationship quite avidly, even though it takes Jon and Lil some time to get to the point.

The place the characterization falls down is in the story’s villains. You can see them coming a mile away, and Jon’s ex-wife is practically a psychopath – if she were a man she’d have a handlebar moustache and a Snidely Whiplash sneer. A little more ambiguity in her character would have added a lot of dimension to the story.

In the final analysis, however, this was a well-paced and absorbing read. I hope to see more from Ms. Corgiat.

-- Judi McKee


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