Tell Me Lies by Jennifer Crusie
(St. Martin's, $24.95, PG-13)
ISBN 0-312-17940-5
****
It's a tough day in the life of Maddie Faraday in the small town of Frog Point, Ohio. While cleaning her husband Brent's Cadillac, she finds a pair of crotchless black lace underpants that don't belong to her. She tries to hide them from her prying neighbors and her 8-year old daughter, Emily, by passing them off as a new kind of scrubbing sponge. Stressed to the max, Maddie realizes she needs chocolate.

"There was a good idea. Chocolate spurred the production of endorphins, which would calm her down, and was full of caffeine, which would give her the energy to kill her husband. The best of both worlds."

Unfortunately, the only chocolate to be found is a frozen brownie, and the microwave has just gone on the fritz, so Maddie is reduced to spearing it with a knife and toasting it like a marshmallow over the stove. During this desperate quest for nirvana, the doorbell rings and she's face-to-face with C.L. Sturgis, the wild guy she had a one-night stand with back in high school, and hasn't seen in twenty years.

Welcome to the first 10 pages of Jennifer Crusie's hardcover debut, Tell Me Lies. Do you have the energy left for the next 300? This rather precipitous leap from category to the Big Time yields mixed but mostly favorable results. Like all Crusie novels, it's hysterically funny. You've got to love a novel that celebrates women's friendships and chocolate almost as much as it glorifies romance. But there are weaknesses too, and given the hefty price tag I'd be remiss if I didn't warn you of them.

Maddie and C.L. are a well-matched couple whose intimate (and sometimes adulterous) encounters are delightfully raunchy. Their romance justifiably shares the spotlight with the relationship between Maddie and her best friend Treva, who has a devastating secret. Watching the two women reconcile is almost as satisfying as watching Maddie and C.L. find their second chance together. Crusie also does an admirable job at portraying the young Em, who has to deal with an unbearable tragedy. Her depiction of an eight- year old trying to come to terms with the unfathomable is poignant and true.

Maddie's mom, the Queen of the Frog Point Gossip and her irascible but wise grandmother, add more screwball flair to the novel. As with most Crusie novels, there is an adorable mutt with questionable lineage. The town of Frog Point itself is almost a character, as Maddie tries to balance truth, lies and reputation to carve a new niche for herself in her hometown.

The real problem for me is the pacing. Crusie operates with one primary speed frenetic. The book doesn't draw you in and build the tension to a resolution it jumps out in your face and carries you through a Fun House Ride until you're breathless. Sometimes I had to put the novel down for a while just to take a breather.

It's probably not a coincidence that the three author endorsements on the back cover of my advance copy compare Jennifer Crusie to Susan Isaacs. St. Martin's would probably love to foster another author as successful and talented as Ms. Isaacs. Crusie certainly can write dialogue that sings in fine Isaac style, but her craft in general can not yet approach the more seasoned author. The characterizations and descriptive passages are still rough around the edges.

I ask for more in my rare hardcover purchases than strong dialogue and lots of laughs. If I'm going to pay that much money, I want a transforming experience. Two hardcovers I read in 1997, Deborah Smith's A Place to Call Home and Eileen Charbonneau's The Randolph Legacy fit that description. Tell Me Lies does not.

But it sure is a lot of fun. I can't take lightly any book whose main character has the exact same fantasy that I do (being alone on a desert island with lots of chocolate and books) and whose best friend has the best perspective on life that I've ever seen:

"My fantasy used to be a lot of chocolate and Harrison Ford. And then one day I thought, Why is Harrison here? If he wasn't, I wouldn't have to do those damn sit ups."

I guess you'll have to use your own judgment about buying this novel, waiting out the paperback, or searching for it at the library. Twenty-five dollars isn't really that much to spend to find a few stress-relieving laughs (it's cheaper than an hour of therapy), but if you're looking for that unforgettable read, I suspect you may be disappointed.

--Susan Scribner


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