Back Roads

Magnolia Sky by Susan Crandall
(Warner, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-446-61410-6
The fans Susan Crandall collected with her first book will be delighted with Magnolia Sky. There are weaknesses, but they emerge late and wonít spoil your enjoyment of the majority of the story.

Luke Boudreau is in Mississippi to see the mother of his buddy, Calvin Abbott, who died in a covert action under Lukeís command. Luke is newly out of the hospital and still recovering from his own considerable injuries. He feels he owes Mrs. Abbott his personal condolences; Calvin died protecting him and he feels responsible for his friendís death.

Luke is astonished to find two Mrs. Abbotts: Calvinís mother, and the wife he never once mentioned he had. Lukeís guilt is instantly compounded by the attraction he feels for Analise Abbott, and the fact that he knows Calvin was not faithful to her.

Analise carries her own load of shame. Even without knowing about Calvinís infidelities, their marriage was not a happy one. They married hastily and, for Analise, it was a way to escape the stultifying upper-crust life of her aloof grandmother. Although Calvin wasnít around much, she found a warm, loving home with his widowed mother, Olivia, and younger brother, Cole.

Analise returns Lukeís reluctant attraction and is horrified when Olivia encourages him to stick around. Her discomfort is compounded by the fact that Cole, who hero-worshipped his older brother, changes under Lukeís influence. Angry and grieving, the teenaged Cole was rapidly getting beyond the control of Olivia and Analise. He seems to respond positively to having a male role model around, however, particularly one who speaks so well of his dead brotherís courage.

There have also been some disturbing occurrences around the Abbott home recently, and it appears that someone may be stalking Analise. Luke feels he owes it to the family to provide the protection he could not give Calvin.

One of the great strengths of this book is the cast of secondary characters. Both Cole and Olivia are realistic and fully rounded, and romance blooms for Cole as well, as part of his maturing process. There is a credible choice of potential villains, and the author does a good job of keeping us guessing on several developments.

Although this isnít a particularly original storyline, the author breaths life into it, engaging the reader with these characters and their problems from the outset. Neither Analise nor Luke believes that they could ever find happiness in a relationship only made possible by Calvinís death. But circumstances, and their own senses of responsibility, keep pushing them into proximity; their feelings cannot help but grow.

I appreciated the gradual growth of the attachment between the hero and heroine. Rather than letting lust drive them into bed, the author allows the demands of their personalities to set the pace.

Lukeís feelings of guilt and responsibility stay strong, but, as he becomes more enmeshed in the Abbottsí lives, he develops enough to keep us interested in his character. I wish I could say the same about Ana, but her self-flagellation wears thin. Eventually, what looked like familial devotion started to feel like martyrdom. It wasnít really about Ana giving her family what they needed, it was about Ana getting what she needed from them. When a serious crisis occurs, Ana becomes determined that everyone will do what she wants them to do, without consideration for their own needs.

I kept waiting for Ana to gain some kind of self knowledge, but it doesnít happen. And I was furious when I found out exactly what it was that Ana felt guilty about. There are lots of things I would have accepted unquestioningly as the source of her angst, but the one the author chose makes her look like an idiot. I canít tell you what it was, of course, because thankfully the author saved this little revelation until nearly the end of the book, but I can tell you that if Iíd had this bulletin sooner the book would have hit the wall.

In spite of the disappointing finish, I can recommend this book as an engaging and entertaining read and Iíll look forward to Ms. Crandallís next effort.

-- Judi McKee

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