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Nobody Does It Better

The Wallflower by Jan Freed
(Harl. Super. #790, 4.25, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-70790-8
After you buy The Wallflower, you've got to make some plans. You'll need plenty of uninterrupted time to read. So, send your family members on loooong errands; suggest McDonald's . . . their corporate headquarters. Send them to the park . . . Disneyland is good. Have lots of fresh coffee on hand to keep you alert because you won't want to miss a word of this sparkling, ingenious story.

Jan Freed has taken a premise we've read before and given it a new twist. Twenty-seven-year-old Sarah Davidson witnesses the murder of a prominent politician. Agreeing to testify, she accepts police protection, only to see her two guards killed. One of the dying policemen warns her that there's a deadly leak. She decides to go undercover and contacts an old family friend to help her. Sarah is going to hide in plain sight, but where most people would never think to look for her: a high school.

Enrolling as a California transfer student, Sarah has changed her hair color from black to shocking red-orange and is now dressing like a neon explosion. We first see the new Sarah as she comes in late to Jack Morgan's English class. Sarah is having a hard time adjusting to her newly acquired adolescent status. She's used to being taken seriously and has forgotten that few people take adolescents seriously. She categorizes Jack as Mr. Ruler-Up-His-Ass Morgan and begins a scintillating, long-running, intellectual sparring game with him.

Jack Morgan is an aspiring screenwriter who feels smothered by the attention required by his widowed mother and teenaged sister. Having been the 'man of the house' for more than fifteen years, he's ready for a change. He loves teaching but wants his screenwriting career to succeed. He's chagrined to discover that he's sexually, intellectually and emotionally interested in agirl.

Looking for engaging secondary characters? They're here, a locker room full of 'em. Jan Freed has managed to make teenagers seem almost human. The angst of the overweight girl, the facade the pimple-faced boy hides behind, the disregard the popular kids feel for the others, the drug pressure . . . these and much more are honestly portrayed. Sarah has a unique role; she's the adult whom the kids accept as their peer. And she's wise enough to realize that her role-model status can be beneficial to the teens she considers her kids.

Jan Freed needs to market a template to authors on how to create strong, sensible, worthwhile heroines. Sarah's darn near-perfect. How long has it been since we've admired a character for her brains, her compassion, her sense of right and wrong, her sense of fairness. She's got Freed's characteristic brashness, a trait I've come to expect. I love heroines who don't suffer fools gladly. Hearing Sarah knock Barbie Doll, the class snob, from her pedestal is classic. Here a whole group of underdogs triumph. Their transformation is inspiring.

Sarah's life is in danger, a fact that we don't forget. It's a little like the car in the next lane. You know it's there, but unless it suddenly cuts in front of you, you ignore it. The danger is there, cruising alongside and when it does cut in front, it does so hurriedly and explosively.

Sarah and Jack's growing relationship is complex. Yes, Jack ferrets out the truth and doesn't knowingly begin a relationship with a teenager. He begins the relationship aware of the full truth about Sarah. Beyond the primary relationship, there are teenagers who add so much color and texture to this story. They are each described so well that they never blurred. I was always able to remember who each kid was.

Watching an adult cope as a teenager was worth the price of the book. Home Ec. is not Sarah's forte. She's in a foods lab partnered with one of the kids she'll soon take under her wing. As usual, she's botched the assignment. Here's their exchange.

"Fred pushed up his Buddy Holly glasses and glared. When the kid grew into his shoulders, hands and feet, he'd be a force to be reckoned with. "Hey, I got the pans out of the oven right on time. If the batter had risen, it wouldn't have burned.

Drooping, Sarah stared at the two pens hooked over his plaid shirt pocket. "I know, you're right. I'm worthless. I'm dust on Paul Prudhomme's blackened redfish. I'm bacteria on Julia Child's cutting board. I'm mold in Martha Stewart's food processor." She peeked up through her lashes.

His dark blue eyes finally gleamed in amusement."

The cover of The Wallflower advises us that this is a guaranteed page-turner. This is one time that truth in advertising is accurate. I kept turning the pages to read more about these fascinating characters, all led by a pied piper named Sarah.

--Linda Mowery

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