Princess Charming

Sis Boom Bah

Name Dropping by Jane Heller
(St. Martin's, $24.95, PG) ISBN 0-312-25234-X
I've read six of Jane Heller's seven novels, and Name Dropping is the most enjoyable one to date. She doesn't write masterpieces, but she does produce entertaining contemporary novels laced with romance, humor and just a bit of mystery. This one is notable for its clever and surprising plot.

When everyday, average preschool teacher Nancy Stern receives an invitation to attend an Ambassador's Ball at the United Nations, she assumes that she's the lucky recipient of somebody's clerical mistake. But after Nancy receives a $10,000 American Express bill for expensive meals, clothing and travel, she realizes that there is another explanation for the mix-up. A celebrity journalist named Nancy Stern has just moved into teacher Nancy Stern's New York City apartment building. Unfortunately, the confusion has just begun. Our heroine receives phone calls from strange men who are looking for the apparently adventurous journalist Nancy. Flowers from admirers and dry-cleaned fur coats are delivered to the teacher by mistake.

Tired of being considered "the wrong Nancy Stern," our heroine finally pays her namesake a visit in her penthouse apartment. She is consumed by envy of the woman's glamorous lifestyle, especially when she realizes that, while the illustrious Nancy Stern is interviewing Kevin Costner, the pedestrian Nancy Stern is finger-painting with four-year-olds. So when she receives a call from a nice-sounding guy named Bill Harris, who is a friend of a friend of the other Nancy Stern, she doesn't bother to tell him that he has a wrong number. Instead, she agrees to a blind date. Since he's never met the famous Nancy, he'll never know that he's having dinner with an imposter.

Of course it's not that simple. Nancy discovers that she really likes Bill, a jewelry store manager who has recently moved from Washington D.C. She hates lying to him, but how can she admit her deception, especially when his main beef against his ex-wife is that she wasn't straight with him? As she's wrestling with this moral dilemma, the unthinkable happens. Nancy Stern, the journalist, is found murdered. Was the fabulous lifestyle hiding something more sinister? Could the Nancy Stern who is still very much alive know something about her namesake that might help solve the murder? And what will happen when she finally tells Bill that the only temper tantrums she has witnessed were thrown by kids, not spoiled celebrities?

At this point in the story, I thought I knew where things were headed -- amateur sleuth tries to solve crime, gets in over her head, yada yada yada. But, happily, I was wrong. Heller isn't a strong writer -- her prose is serviceable at best -- but she does have a talent for plotting. The rest of the story is filled with surprising revelations, twists and turns that would be downright criminal to reveal. Heller outsmarted even this astute reader on several occasions, as plot developments that I should have anticipated took me by surprise. Suffice to say that by the time Nancy Stern finds her happily-ever-after, she has no reason to envy anyone else.

Heller's weaknesses as a writer are painfully apparent at times. Name Dropping would make a great movie if Heller supplied the plot and someone else fine-tuned the dialogue. Nancy is at her best when she hanging out with her gal-pal Janice, a woman who views Barnes & Noble as the shopping mecca for eligible men. Their dialogue is lively and funny. The scenes at Nancy's preschool, Small Blessings, are realistic and even poignant at times. But the dialogue between Nancy and Bill, and especially their few love scenes, are embarrassingly wooden and forced. And the main characters, while basically sympathetic, don't have a lot of depth.

Based on book jacket comparisons, the publishing world seems eager to crown the next Susan Isaacs (frankly, I'd rather see the original Susan Isaacs be more prolific). Despite some superficial similarities, Jane Heller is still no Susan Isaacs. But if you can appreciate her talents on their own merit, she is a fun author whose novels are the very essence of "beach reading."

--Susan Scribner

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