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Angel Falls by Kristin Hannah
(Crown, $23.00, G) ISBN 0-609-60592-5
***
Angel Falls will likely be a love-it-or-don't kind of read for many people. One's appreciation of the book may rest with one's acceptance of the heroine, who lies in a coma for eighty percent of the story. Ms. Hannah's prodigious storytelling talents shine, though, and the beauty of her prose stands out.

The story opens with a scene between nine-year-old Bret Campbell, who awakes on Halloween morning determined to show his mother that he's old enough to go on an overnight trail ride. He sneaks out to the barn to saddle her horse, and when Mikaela Campbell arrives a few minutes later, their moment together is sweet. A few minutes later, Bret watches in horror as his mother is thrown from her horse and cracks her helmeted head against a barn post. Mikaela immediately slips into a coma.

Her husband, Dr. Liam Campbell, is devastated. Liam grew up under the shadow of his formidable father, Ian Campbell (for which half the town is named) and his own dreams of becoming a concert pianist faded in college when he discovered his limitations. Medical school was the next choice. A return to his hometown of Last Bend fifteen years ago caused him to meet Mikaela, his father's nurse. Liam fell in love at first sight, and four years later, he and Mikaela were married when she became pregnant with Bret.

There has always been a side of Mikaela that has been hidden from Liam, something to do with her first marriage and her daughter, Jacey. Jacey is now sixteen, and Liam has been her Dad since she was a little girl. Liam loves Mikaela desperately -- but knows deep inside that she is not in love with him in the same way. As his beloved Mike lies in a coma, he tries to reach her. Nothing works, until Liam accidentally discovers a pillowcase full of mementos in the back of their closet. A wedding photo and newspaper clippings reveal a shattering truth. Mikaela's first husband -- and Jacey's father -- was movie star Julian True. And her love for him has never died.

Mikaela reacts to Julian's name. At first a blink, then a moan. Liam decides to bring Julian True to Last Bend, in hopes that his presence will make Mikaela wake up. When Mikaela does, indeed awake, events will be set in motion that will alter all of their lives.

Liam and Bret were by far the most sympathetic characters in the book. The author does a fine job of climbing into the head of a nine-year-old, and her portrayal of Liam is astonishing in its clarity and focus. Readers will agonize with him as he tries to reach Mikaela, and later, as he tries to bring her back to him in the gentlest possible way. Quiet Liam is every inch the hero as he cares for his family and watches his marriage sail into dangerous waters of his own making.

Julian, the Hollywood star who threw away his chance for happiness years ago, is surprisingly sympathetic. Married four times, he knows too late that Mikaela was the only woman who truly loved him. This was one place the story floundered. The Julian that Mikaela knew and loved is portrayed as an immature, coke-sniffing adulterer. There didn't seem to be much for her to adore, and for all his musings that "she loved him for what he was inside," readers aren't shown whatever that "inside" is. So we're left with a woman who is infatuated with a movie star and his good looks, and finally leaves him and his amoral lifestyle, only to delude herself for the next fifteen years that "someday he'll come for me." All the while marrying someone else, a good man, to whom she bears a child but can't fully love.

And therein lies the biggest reason I can't recommend this book wholeheartedly. Mikaela, in her coma, can't tell the reader why on earth she'd hang on to her obsession with a good-looking loser for all those years. And yes, for all that Julian is a star, his character and actions place him firmly into the loser category. He has never contacted Mikaela about their daughter, for example. He was sleeping with anything in skirts when she left him, as well as snorting a wad of coke up his nose every time she turned around. His revelation, too late, that he gave up something precious makes him sympathetic, but nobody worth obsessing over. The upshot of this is that Mikaela looks like a fool, a teenybopper who has never grown past the adulation stage to see with adult eyes. If she hadn't cracked her head on a post, would she ever have given up her silly dreams and told Liam the truth? Would she ever have become the wife he deserved? I don't think so.

Angel Falls is worth a read for the exquisite portrayal of Liam and the children. Kristin Hannah has the ability to make readers weep. Here it will be over the hero's anguish, not the love between the hero and heroine. And that's a bit of a sad thing.

--Cathy Sova


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