Perfect Secrets
by Brenda Joyce, Kathleen Kane, Judith O’Brien & Delia Parr
(St. Martin’s, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-312-97029-3
***
With four different authors, diverse time periods and settings, and a near-jarring difference in sub-genres, the “perfect secret” is how the publisher arrived at the mix. A thematic link?

Brenda Joyce’s, “When Dreams Don’t Die,” seems misplaced in Perfect Secrets. In the prologue, young Blair Anderson approaches her wealthy father’s East Texas ranch house riding a shiny new red bike he has given her. She has no right to be near Rick Hewitt’s house. As his illegitimate daughter, Blair is on the outside looking in. A brief interaction between Blair and Rick’s legitimate daughter, Faith, and a comparison of their bikes, the sturdy red versus the trendy pink, underscores the vast differences in the lives of the half-sisters.

When Blair arrives home her mother is heading out of town and out of her life and Blair is left to be raised by Grandma. At eighteen, broken-hearted by Faith’s marrying the man of her dreams, Blair heads to New York City, hoping to never go back.

But in 1999, Blair returns to Harmony with her ten-year-old daughter. Rick has died, accidentally thrown from his horse. Blair is a major beneficiary of his will. Her old friend, Matt Ramsey, now the town sheriff drops the hint that Rick’s death may have been no accident. Various suspects are introduced, including Blair’s mother and Lyndsay’s father. A relationship blossoms between Blair and Matt.

Ironically, “When Dreams Don’t Die” is too brief. The murder suspects would benefit from multi-dimensional treatment. Unless “who-done-it” is considered a “perfect secret,” the story is misplaced in this anthology.

By comparison, Judith O’Brien’s “Across A Crowded Room” is “perfect.” The mere idea that a half-century old fruitcake may enable two people to find each other and help create a peaceful “after-life” for long-dead, unrequited lovers is a nearly perfect secret. Delivered in a snappy, first-person narrative with humorous elements, the heroine’s plight will appeal to any adult who harbors feelings of having been wronged by a teenage peer.

After learning the ropes at her hometown TV station in Chattanooga, Nicole Lovett is thrilled to move to Savannah. After years of living with her parents, a home inherited from recently deceased spinster, Aunt Adele, provides a convenient place for Nicole to live independently. Just as Nicole is on the brink of achieving her dream of becoming a TV anchor, her high-school nemesis appears from nowhere as the station’s choice. Zany spinster Adele has left odd little notes throughout the house, but her greatest contribution is hundreds of pounds of fruitcake, marked “return to sender.” As the fruitcake works its magic, you will be enchanted by Nicole and her growing appreciation for Aunt Adele.

In a story set in late nineteenth-century California, “The Return of Travis Dean,” Kathleen Kane uses an entertaining pair of earthly lovers, turned wanna-be angels, to marvelous effect as they attempt to restore the relationship between a shanghaied rancher and his fiancée. After an absence of four years, Travis reappears in town and sees his own grave, then is horrified to note he has been buried under a marker with an epitaph that does not rhyme and next to “the meanest damned schoolteacher in all of California, ‘Monster” Morgan.” Travis ponders who could have hated him that much.

Who else but wronged fiancée, Katie? Apparently, Travis left for a quick business trip and never made it back for the wedding. When she discovers she is pregnant, Katie pretends they married secretly, then pretends to receive a telegram announcing Travis’ death in an explosion. Katie “buries” him -- she wants the irresponsible Travis Dean gone and forgotten.

The story revolves around Travis’ attempts to convince Katie to marry him for real rather than pretend to divorce. Travis’ Uncle Eli and Katie’s Aunt Addie hover and appear to their earth-bound progeny with just the right “spirit.”

Delia Parr’s story, “Redemption,” suffers by comparison to those preceding it. The responsibility of heroes as role-models and catalysts for change, the possibility of victims’ lessening their own plight, and the role of fate versus free will are serious subjects parading across the pages. Unfortunately, the subject matter is treated in a trite way.

In 1818, in upstate New York, a poor woman, wrongly shunned, living alone in an isolated cabin, helps a wounded traveler. A blizzard forces the two to remain together in close quarters for several days. He is revealed as a national war hero, traveling incognito, hoping to avoid the locals’ fawning and adulation. Following a night of caring for him, his return to health is accompanied by some hackneyed verbal sparring. Not surprisingly, the timid seamstress has the gumption to force the hero to see the error of his ways; he in turn helps her figure out how to redeem herself.

Although this collection includes two good short stories, and I was left wishing the Joyce novella had been more fully developed, the book is not one I can wholeheartedly recommend. If you do buy Perfect Secrets, I recommend sharing it with friends. Surely two readers will enjoy at least two or three stories each.

--Sue Klock


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