The Nine Month Plan
by Wendy Markham
(Warner, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-61175-1
Nina Chickalini and Joe Materi have lived next to each other in Queens their entire lives. Their families are like one big extended family. Nina had a crush on Joe at one time, but is long over it. Joe had a crush on Nina, but never let it develop. In fact, Joe was engaged to their mutual friend, Minnie, just after high school. But on the day of their wedding, Minnie ran away and became a nun. Nina was left to tell Joe and in her effort to comfort him, ended up sleeping with him. Neither of them has spoken of it again, although each has thought of it periodically with fond memories.

Now, 15 years later, Nina is almost ready to fly the coop. She has been planning for years to leave home and travel. Nina has been rearing her brothers and sisters ever since she was 13. Her mother died giving birth to her youngest brother Ralphie, and as the oldest, Nina became the surrogate mother. She is tired of the domestic life and wants more. She feels like she has raised her family. The only thing she has missed is actually giving birth.

Joe, on the other hand, took himself in hand after Minnie and has worked hard to make something of himself on Wall St. He is set for life financially. The only thing he is missing is a wife and children. He just can’t find the right woman.

What Joe and Nina do have is a great friendship. They know each other’s habits, likes, dislikes, etc. better than any spouse. They laugh, tease and banter back and forth. During one of these moments of bantering, an idea is formed. Nina wants to give birth and Joe wants a baby. Why not? Nina plans to leave on July 4th, Independence Day, approximately one month after Ralphie graduates from high school. That gives her just 10 months to go. She could have Joe’s baby, and leave it for Joe to raise – everybody’s happy!

The idea gains merit and they decide to do it. After a false negative pregnancy test, Nina discovers she is pregnant. She and Joe discover the sex to be great, so they keep seeing each other and spending time together in all ways. As things proceed, they each begin to realize their relationship might be more than just good sex and a baby. But Nina has plans and can’t change her mind while Joe is not ready to verbalize his feelings for fear of getting dumped again. The family all thinks they will get married and they face the dilemma of acting like they are/should without really getting engaged or being forced to marry.

Involved in all this fun are a large cast of supporting actors. Rosalee, Ralphie and Dominick Chickalini are Italian Americans at their finest. Papa Chickalini is caring, concerned, hard working and oblivious to his children’s pains. They love Nina, but do truly see her as more of a mother figure than a sister. If the teaser at the back of the book is true, there will be future books about these siblings.

Joe has a family too, but they are less integral to the story. He, however, has a best friend and his wife who are going through the challenges of getting pregnant. Joe also has a few possible girlfriends who add something to the tale.

Markham writes a generally fast-paced story filled with dialogue. There are many pages of talking, followed by thinking. Luckily she lets you into both Nina and Joe’s head, so that helps you keep up with who is thinking/feeling what while they are saying just the opposite or making a neutral comment that can’t be interpreted to be their true feelings. This both works at times and is very disconcerting at times.

When it works, it is fun, silly, emotional and entertaining. When it doesn’t, the two sound whiny and pathetic. This uneven pace makes for uneven reading. There are times when I actually put the book down in the middle of a scene and could pick right up on the dialogue when I started reading hours later.

Nina felt wishy-washy to me. At times, she is to be adored for all she has done for her family. Then she starts wishing to be gone and it seems she wants to feel very much like a martyr. At one point, Joe asked her if she was ever happy where she was – I felt like asking her that a lot.

Joe is a great guy, but doesn’t seem to think much of himself. He seems to date losers and then laments with Nina that he can’t find the right girl. He is described as this macho hunk, but he acts like a homebody who has no prospects.

The downfall of the book is that the author used the emotional ties to resolve the conflict and while I found myself with tears running down my cheeks, I resented the manipulation.

The Nine Month Plan presents us with two characters that tend to waver back and forth in the midst of a story that is uneven and laden with emotions. I felt like you often do with extended family – you love ‘em to death when they visit, but sure are glad when they all go home.

--Shirley Lyons

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