Rescue Me by Gigi Levangie Grazer
(Pocket, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-671-04280-7
***
It took me almost a week to read Rescue Meís 350 pages - not because the book is poorly written, but because itís so damn grim. If you donít mind wading through the depraved lifestyles of the near-poor and wanna-be-famous in 1980ís California, you might find some benediction in the love story of its protagonists. But for me, the ugliness outweighed the emotional reward.

Having taken on the caretaker role in the family at an early age, Amanda McHenry is used to rescuing others. She lives with her drug-dealer brother, Valentin and his addict girlfriend, Patrice, and is the only one responsible enough to ensure that their baby stays alive and healthy. Amanda is also the emotional caretaker for her boyfriend, James, who is about to leave Los Angeles for Harvard Law School - not bad for a Latino immigrant with big ambitions. Amanda has a clear vision of Jamesí flaws, but she has loved him since they were kids and he knows her better than anyone else. But the day James leaves, Amanda meets Valís friend, Gabriel, and she immediately falls in love, the real type, with hearts and flowers and visions of forever.

James has no qualms about screwing around with Harvard co-eds to compensate for the fact that he feels totally lost in his new environment. So itís not really a sin that Amanda is head over heels with this gorgeous, kind black man before she even knows his name. But Amanda doesnít have the luxury of wallowing in her new love. She endures a humiliating job as a receptionist for a daytime talk show, hoping in vain that someday the star or producer will notice her and promote her instead of just hitting on her (and every other female that works there). She also has to keep Val and Patrice from killing each other and/or getting arrested. But their baby, safe and healthy despite his inauspicious parentage, is Amandaís pride and joy.

For his part, Gabriel is just as smitten as Amanda. An automotive plant laborer, he knows his life is going nowhere, but he has resisted the drugs and violence that surrounds him. He sees a beautiful woman in Amanda and wants to protect her. Someone who wants to give to her, not take from her! Amanda canít believe sheís been lucky enough to find such a man. But the twin forces of Valís drug dealing and Jamesí irrational possessiveness threaten to separate the lovers forever.

Gigi Levangie Grazer (what a name!) penned the screenplay for the movie Stepmom. Sheís a powerful writer and itís easy to see the bookís characters on the silver screen. Her words sometimes entertain, but more often than not, theyíre used to shock and sadden. Rescue Me is one of the bleakest books Iíve read in recent memory. Most of its secondary characters are drug users or people users who have lost any moral compass years ago and donít know how to get it back even if they wanted to. Grazer litters the novel with meaningless sex, adultery, drug addiction, AIDS and death. Amanda and Gabrielís love is supposed to contrast sharply with the decadence around them, but the romance never fully resonates with the reader. The two fall in love at first sight, and fall into bed together almost as quickly, but thereís little conversation between them other than bedroom banter and professions of undying devotion. You have to wonder how much they really know each other and how long their love could really last.

After 330 pages, the novel comes to a dramatic, shocking climax involving Amanda, James, Val and Gabriel. Then it flashes forward ten years, and wraps up the pieces in one short chapter. The ending feels abrupt and unsatisfying, and the required emotional payoff never fully materializes.

Rescue Me certainly has the distinction of being in a class by itself, but consider yourself forewarned: itís no fairy tale, yet love does conquer all in the end.

Note to Pocket Books and the cover artist of this book: Gabriel is half black. You only have to read up to page 26 to find that out. The man on your cover has no African-American features at all. What gives?

--Susan Scribner


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