And After That, the Dark

Just Married...Again

The Last Southern Belle

Night Kills

Valley of the Shadow

A New Attitude by Charlotte Hughes
(Mira, $5.99, PG) ISBN 1-55166863-7
Your opinion of this novel will largely depend on how you react to its black humor-filled opening scene in which the heroine tries to commit suicide. Personally, I was more offended than amused. One thing is for sure - this isn’t your garden variety screwball comedy. With A New Attitude, Charlotte Hughes attempts to combine her sweet Loveswept romances with her Southern Gothic mysteries. The result is uneven but interesting.

Marilee Abernathy, a good Christian woman, has had too many shocks lately in her little hometown of Chickpea, South Carolina. Her minister husband, Grady, abruptly left the pulpit and his wife for a piece of trailer-park trash named LaFonda Bonaire (nee Betty Clump). Her teenaged son blamed her for the breakup and chose to live with Grady. Marilee meets her new neighbor, Sam Brewer, when she injures herself while trying to abort the above-mentioned suicide attempt, and Sam thinks she needs some serious psychiatric help.

But once Marilee decides that she might as well live, she takes control. First on the agenda is to find a job, but fortunately her childhood friends, Irby and Debbie, need some help at their funeral home. Next Marilee has to devise a way to preserve her community project, a home for pregnant teenage girls, despite the fact that the house is falling apart and donations are drying up. With the help of her best friends, Marilee is soon on a campaign to save Blessing Home, and she even boards a black teenager named Winnie. Finally, Marilee has to deal with that worthless husband and with her feelings for Sam, former town bad boy.

Hughes, a native Southerner, has made a name for herself by filling her novels with colorful, small-town Southern characters, and she stays the course in her latest book. From Marilee’s best friend, Ruby, who has “been around the block so many times they’ve named streets after her,” to Irby, the mortician who sees the lighter side of death, the secondary characters demand to be noticed. Marilee’s son, Josh, is depicted realistically as a confused teenager who already resented being a minister’s kid and now has to deal with his parents’ embarrassingly public breakup. One character that never quite seems genuine, however, is Winnie, the pregnant black teenager who has been deserted by her parents. Her immediate bond with Marilee is too good to be true, considering their differences.

The novel devotes a lot of pages to Marilee’s search for personal fulfillment. Before she reaches self-actualization, she goes through a number of bizarre misadventures, some of which barely advance the plot, and most of which are marked by more dark humor. If you saw that 80’s movie, Weekend at Bernie’s, you’ll know what I’m talking about. By the end of the book, Marilee has proven to herself that she can take care of herself financially and emotionally, but it’s nice to know she gets the guy as well.

Hughes’ heart doesn’t seem to be into the romance between Marilee and Sam as much as it is invested in Marilee and her kooky Southern neighbors. Sam is supposed to be a notorious womanizer, but that label feels thrown in for convenience’s sake and so there will be some reason for Marilee to resist him initially. You never get the feeling that he’s really that bad.

Hughes may be trying for a new attitude of her own with her latest novel, but I can’t help wishing she’d return to the more suspenseful atmosphere of her earlier Avon books, such as After That, the Dark and Valley of the Shadow. The field is crowded enough with contemporary screwball comedies and Hughes was better suited for the unique niche she once inhabited.

--Susan Scribner

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