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On Mystic Lake by Kristin Hannah
(Crown, $19.95, PG) ISBN 0-609-60249-7
***
With book jacket endorsements from Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jayne Ann Krentz, Tami Hoag, Luanne Rice and Diana Gabaldon, who am I to say that On Mystic Lake was somewhat of a disappointment? Just a lowly romance reader and reviewer with her own stubborn opinion, I guess. Certainly there was much to appreciate about Kristin Hannah's first hardcover, but I've been more emotionally affected by some of her earlier novels.

Annie Colwater receives the shock of her life when Blake, her husband of twenty years, announces that he wants a divorce on the day that their teenaged daughter flies off to London for a semester abroad. Although Annie has been a perfect corporate wife and caretaker for years, Blake tells her he has fallen in love with the new junior partner at his company. After wallowing in misery for a week, Annie decides to leave southern California to visit her father in her Washington State hometown of Mystic.

In Mystic, Annie starts to shed her polished but empty image and discover her true self. She learns that her best friend Kathy recently died, leaving behind a shattered husband and a mute six-year-old daughter, Izzy. In high school, Annie, Kathy and Nick were best friends, the "gruesome threesome." Annie went to Stanford after graduation and Nick married Kathy. Full of grief and guilt, he has become an alcoholic who neglects his child. Ever the caretaker, Annie first becomes Izzy's babysitter and then Nick's confidante, lover and inspiration. Through Annie, Nick gets his act together, but then several surprising developments indicate that their love affair is doomed to be a short one.

Kristin Hannah is a master at tugging at the heartstrings, and she pulls no punches as she mines the deepest emotions of her characters. Annie lost her own mother at an early age, and she empathizes with poor Izzy:

She knew the hand Izzy had been dealt. There was nothing harder than losing a mother, no matter what age you were, but to a child, a girl especially, it changed everything about your world. In the years since her mom's death, Annie had learned to talk about the loss almost conversationally, the way you would remark upon the weather. "My mother died when I was young. passed away. passed on. deceased. an accident. I really don't remember her." Sometimes, it didn't hurt to say those things and sometimes the pain stunned her. Sometimes, she smelled a whiff of perfume, or the vanilla-rich scent of baking sugar cookies, or heard the tail end of a Beatles song on the radio, and she would stand in the middle of her living room, a woman full grown, and cry like a little girl.

You'd have to be half-dead not to be affected by a passage like that. Hannah writes with similar skill of Nick's grief, pain and redemption. So why can't I recommend the book more strongly? Maybe it was because the characters, with the exception of Izzy, didn't captivate me. Hannah's portrayal of Izzy, who believes that she is gradually disappearing, one finger at a time, is beautiful, complex and haunting. But Annie left me cold. Sure, she has good reasons for being such a passive caretaker, but she was annoyingly blind about Blake's obvious inability to love her or their daughter. And Nick was so wounded for so long that he barely came across as a strong major character.

The plot was fairly simple and predictable as well. I realize the rules may be different when an author is trying to break into the mainstream, but I missed the magical and time-travel touches of my favorite Kristin Hannah novels, including The Enchantment and Once in Every Life. I appreciated Annie and Nick's respective journeys towards self-discovery and growth, but I yearned for that little "something extra."

I liked On Mystic Lake, but I found myself putting it down too easily, and I just didn't love it. I realize I'm disagreeing with the accolades of some well-respected romance authors but as a reviewer I owe it to my readers to be fully honest about my opinion. I have no doubt that many romance fans will adore this four-hanky novel, but I was left surprisingly dry-eyed.

--Susan Scribner


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