Princess Charming

Sis Boom Bah by Jane Heller
(St. Martin's, $23.95, G) ISBN 0-312-20312-8
The premise of this contemporary comedy/mystery/romance was promising, but I'm afraid I can't cheer for the implementation. I'm not surprised to see that author Jane Heller is a former book promoter. I have no doubt that she is skilled at recognizing and marketing good ideas. But her writing skills are unremarkable.

Deborah Peltz, a New York soap opera scriptwriter, has never gotten along with her older sister Sharon. Their most recent argument occurred two years ago, when Deborah criticized Sharon's choice in men (as Sharon was divorcing her third husband), and the two haven't spoken since. But now Deborah's mother Lenore insists that the feud be suspended for her 75th birthday party. Both Lenore and Sharon, a wedding planner, live in upscale Boca Raton, Florida, so Deborah has to fly in from New York. When they face each other, the two sisters are unable to keep their claws sheathed (Sharon's first words to Deborah are, "Your dress is lovely. I once had an old tablecloth just like it,") but when Lenore suffers a heart attack soon after the party, they realize their behavior must change. They swear a truce, even though they secretly still can't stand each other. Deborah moves to Florida to care for Lenore and reassess her plans and priorities.

The truce is tested when both Peltz sisters start making goo-goo eyes at Jeffrey Hirshon, their mother's cardiologist. But, determined to keep the peace, they agree to stay away from the seemingly perfect and available physician. Then Jeffrey confesses to Deborah that he is really interested in her -- and only her. Deborah wrestles with her conscience, but decides to throw caution to the wind and succumb to Jeffrey's charms, truce or no truce. However, when she arrives at his house, she finds Sharon, who has also been told by the duplicitous doc that she is his only squeeze. Their ensuing argument is cut short when they find Jeffrey shot dead in his den. Of course they have just handed the police a perfect motive for murder: sisterly jealousy.

Judging from the book's inside cover description, I thought the two sisters would join forces to solve the murder, gradually reconciling as they utilized their specific skills. Instead, while Sharon involves herself with her smarmy defense attorney, Deborah does solo sleuthing, and none too smoothly either. Fortunately, she has a head full of soap opera scripts, so she is already an expert on solving mysteries - as long as the real murderer has the same motivation and behavior as a soap opera character. She also has help from her new "buddy" Ray, who has some very personal reasons for celebrating Jeffrey Hirshon's demise.

Deborah's tendency to use soap opera logic rather than real life logic is one of the few amusing aspects of the novel. Also, it's pleasant to see a strong relationship between a Jewish mother and daughter instead of a stereotypical dysfunctional one. However, my overall impression of the book is negative. The sister dynamic is woefully under-developed until the very end, and both sisters come off as self-centered bitches. I found it laughably implausible that the police detective in charge of the case would allow Deborah, a potential suspect, to help investigate the crime and even provide her with important information to flesh out her theories.

The worst strike against Sis Boom Bah is Jane Heller's drab, uninspired writing style, which negates most of the potential pleasure of the reading experience. Great idea, poor writing and poor characterizations add up to a below average read. If you want a good book about sisters, I'd suggest that you read Nora Roberts' Born in Fire/Ice/Shame trilogy, or Deborah Smith's When Venus Fell. Sis Boom Bah rates a fairly strong "Bah, humbug," from this reviewer.

--Susan Scribner

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