Watermelon by Marian Keyes
(Avon, $15.95, PG) ISBN 0-380-97617-X
*****
If your best friend, whom you hadn't seen in months, called you on the phone and told you all about her mixed-up, tumultuous but entertaining life, the results might sound very much like Watermelon, a delightful, chatty novel about life, love, babies, family and shopping. Another example of the Great British Isle Author Invasion (along with Katie Fforde and Helen Fielding, among others), Watermelon will leave you chuckling and wishing for more.

Our 29-year old heroine, Claire, has just been told by her husband that he is leaving her, only hours after she gave birth to their first child. But let Claire explain the situation:

"My husband told me about twenty-four hours ago that he has been having an affair for the past six months with and get this with a married woman who lives in the apartment two floors below us. I mean, how suburban can you get? And not only is he having an affair but he wants a divorce.

I'm sorry if I'm being unnecessarily flippant about this. I'm all over the place. In a moment I'll be crying again. I'm still in shock, I suppose. Her name is Denise and I know her quite well.

Not quite as well as James does, obviously.

The awful thing is she always seemed to be really nice. She's thirty-five (don't ask me how I know this, I just do; and at the risk of sounding very sour grapes and losing your sympathy, she does look thirty-five) and she has two children and a nice husband (quite apart from my one, that is). And apparently she's moved out of her apartment and he's moved out of his (or ours, should I say) and they've both moved into a new one in a secret location.

Can you believe it? How dramatic can you get? I know her husband is Italian, but I really don't think he's likely to kill the pair of them. He's a waiter, not a Mafia stooge, so what's he going to do? Black pepper them to death? Compliment them into a coma? Run them over with the dessert trolley?"

Broken-hearted Claire leaves her London apartment and moves back in with her parents and two younger sisters in Dublin. There, she falls apart, pulls herself back together again, meets a man who may be too good to be true, and confronts her philandering husband when he crawls back into her life. Of course, none of these events are original or earth-shattering, but the way they are related is loads of fun. Claire has an offbeat view of life and an amusing habit of personifying her emotions:

"Temporary Insanity had come a-calling, and I had shouted "Come in, the door is open." Luckily, Reality had come home unexpectedly and found Temporary Insanity roaming the corridors of my mind unchecked, going into rooms, opening cupboards, reading my letters, looking in my underwear drawer, that kind of thing. Reality had run and got Sanity. And after a tussle, they both had managed to throw out Temporary Insanity and slam the door in his face."

I'm sorry, I'll stop quoting. But it's hard to resist there are so many absurd, hilarious passages. Then there are Claire's family members, including her domestically challenged Mum who is suspicious of Claire's use of "Palmerstown cheese and Presto sauce;" and her totally and unapologetically narcissistic sister who survives college by making every male fall in love with her so they'll write her term papers. They and the other supporting characters are pretty memorable, but none more so than Claire herself. Who could resist a heroine who believes that she and a pair of shoes she saw at the mall were together in a previous life? Who wonders if the person who has the job of writing her life's dialogue used to work on a very low budget soap opera? By the end of the novel I felt like we were best friends. I wanted to share favorite books and movies and chocolate bars with her.

The only readers who might be disappointed would be the ones who require their novels to have a formal structure and lots of descriptive passages. They will be turned off by Claire's stream of consciousness musings and chatty dialogue. Also, judging from an author's note, this is a special American edition of the novel, and there's nary a trace of British or Irish dialect. While that makes Watermelon easier to read, it takes away a bit of the flavor that makes British or Irish novels so interesting.

The front cover of Watermelon carries an endorsement from Nora Roberts ("What a delightful book!"), and what better recommendation could there be than one from the Goddess herself? Keyes is the author of several other novels and hopefully all of them will be published in the United States before too long. I can't wait to make friends with this author's other heroines.

--Susan Scribner


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