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All She Ever Wanted
by Barbara Freethy
(Signet, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-21365-3
You’ve got to hand it to Barbara Freethy – she knows how to write a page-turner. This one might have been alternately titled The Big Chill Meets The Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and, while perhaps a little formulaic, it’s absorbing reading.

While in college, four young women became close friends. Dubbing themselves the Fabulous Four, Natalie, Emily, Laura and Madison pledged the same sorority as sophomores, only to have tragedy strike in a way that would change all their lives. During a drunken party at the sorority house, Emily fell from the roof and died.

An inquest ruled that her death was accidental, but the close relationship between the remaining three girls was at an end. Emily’s demise also seemed to be the death blow for the passionate but troubled love affair between Natalie and Emily’s brother Cole.

Ten years later, in the last month of her residency in emergency medicine, Natalie is shocked to discover that someone has written a novel that seems to be based on the circumstances of Emily’s death. Worse, the book says that Emily did not fall to her death, but was pushed – by Natalie.

When Cole shows up unexpectedly in Natalie’s emergency room, she at first thinks he’s broken ten years of silence to talk about the book. Then she realizes his presence is pure coincidence. Cole has a gash in his head; his now ex-girlfriend threw a stapler at him when she realized he wasn’t paying any attention to her when she was trying to break up with him. Cole, a journalist who now runs the family newspaper, was distracted by something on CNN.

The book and the implied accusation against Natalie cause a furor as people who know the story recognize the protagonists. Many people, including Cole’s parents, seem only too anxious to believe in Natalie’s guilt and the doubts raised by the book threaten both the career she worked so hard for and the fragile beginnings of a renewed relationship with Cole.

While stories of a group of friends who met in college are not exactly original, they do offer some nice opportunities for an author to show off her chops, and Ms. Freethy takes advantage of most of them.

There are a lot of characters in this book, including one who’s been dead for ten years, and each one of them is a distinct individual. Many of the characters are ‘types’ to be sure, but the author manages to make the important ones real enough that they don’t feel like stereotypes.

She also does a great job of peeling away the story in layers. Everyone involved has a unique perspective on the events of ten years ago and each holds a slightly different piece of the puzzle. Ms. Freethy does her usual excellent job of easing all the different elements together into one store.

She also has a very deft touch with dialogue; the conversations always ring true, both to character and to life.

Having said that, however, there are so many characters, each with their own story to tell, that the book does seem a bit superficial. We get to know everyone a little, but no one very well. While it’s briskly paced and interesting, at the end I realized that I’d never really gotten involved with any of the characters, including Natalie and Cole. The hero and heroine tell us that they’ve changed, and that that’s the reason they can renew their romance, but in fact it seemed as though it had more to do with renewed proximity.

I also have to say that the revelation about the villain came out of left field, which, after lots of steady build, made the last few chapters feel like a bit of a let down. And I find notions of ‘scandal’ very dated in a contemporary novel. People’s reputations and careers seem to be able to survive anything these days. Remember Bill Clinton?

In spite of these quibbles, this is an extremely readable book and one that I often found difficult to put down. If you’re looking for some light escapist reading during the holidays, this would be a good choice.

-- Judi McKee

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