The Picture Book by Susannah Keating
(William Morrow, $20, G) ISBN 0-688-17888-X
***
The Picture Book was the quintessential 3-heart book. It didn't thrill me, it didn't ake me mad. It wasn't poorly written, it wasn't a masterpiece. Basically, it just sat there with its attractive Renoir cover and its stylish 5 X 8 size. You could do worse, but you could do a lot better.

Maybe I was too old to identify with the heroine, twenty-two year old Patrizia Orman, a recent art school graduate. Patrizia is working in a New York City art gallery when she receives distressing news. Her mother, Lizzie, has had a car accident back in their small Wisconsin hometown. Patrizia rushes home, but it's too late to see her mother alive one last time. Her shock at Lizzie's untimely death is compounded by the discovery of a series of letters written by Patrizia's father, an anonymous figure whom Lizzie always refused to discuss.

Patrizia learns from her mother's best friend that Lizzie met a handsome Italian man in Rome while she was studying art conservation. Masimilliano Caracci swept Lizzie off her feet, but when she became pregnant he gave her an ultimatum: either have an abortion or their relationship was over. Lizzie chose to return home to Wisconsin and raise her daughter by herself, forgoing her own personal and professional dreams.

Now Patrizia decides to return to the scene of the crime, find her father and somehow avenge her mother's loss. But her plans take a strange turn when a planned deception backfires, and she meets a charming Italian man of her own. Suddenly revenge takes a backseat to love and the rediscovery of her passion for painting. But is she destined to repeat her mother's mistakes?

Hell if I know, or really care, for that matter. I wish I could have warmed up to Patrizia, but her personality was so flat throughout most of the book that it was difficult to root for her. She wasn't interesting enough to carry the book's point of view; seen through her eyes, it was difficult to get a handle on her long-lost father or Andrea, the Italian man who seems to offer the promise of enduring love.

First-time novelist Susannah Keating elicits more emotion from the reader when she's describing the beauty of the Italian countryside or the mouthwatering Italian cuisine than when she details Patrizia's odyssey to find herself. It's obvious that she has a great affection for the country and its inhabitants. Her descriptions of Italian paintings and sculptures were wasted on someone like myself who is artistically-challenged, but might appeal to more talented readers.

There are no surprises in the plot, just a simple story of a young woman who comes alive through the discovery of her previously unexplored heritage and artistic talent. I started The Picture Book, then put it aside and read two other novels before I returned to it a week later. The fact that I could put the novel down for a week without missing it or wondering what was going to happen indicates that it's a novel that I can't heartily endorse.

--Susan Scribner


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