Body Check

Fair Play by Deirdre Martin
(Berkley, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-425-19457-4
† Deirdre Martinís debut novel, Body Check, received glowing reviews, but she suffers a slight sophomore slump with her follow-up, Fair Play. Because the novelís subplots are more interesting than the central romance plot, I finished the book wondering if Martin might be more successful exploring another genre. †

Readers of Body Check will be familiar with Theresa Falconetti, best friend and business partner of that bookís heroine, Janna MacNeil. An ambitious public relations expert who is eager to leave her Brooklyn roots behind, Theresa resists her parentsí entreaties to find a nice Italian husband. And ever since she was nearly raped by a hockey player, she has avoided athletes like the plague. So of course the man of her destiny is Michael Dante, New York Blades winger and fan favorite, who has been carrying a torch for Theresa for the past two years. †

Hoping to spend more time with Theresa and convince her that not all Italians are goombas, Michael hires her to develop a publicity campaign for Danteís, the restaurant he co-owns with his brother Anthony. Despite his earnest efforts to prove to Theresa that heís a caring, generous, romantic guy, she remains elusive. By the time Theresa finally comes to her senses, will Michael still be waiting or will he finally lose his patience? †

Of course you and I know the answer to that question, and the fact that Theresa takes so long to appreciate Michaelís considerable charm makes the novelís romance extremely frustrating. As a suitor, Michael is without equal. He takes Theresa to romantic restaurants and dancing clubs, heís patient with her physically as she deals with the after-effects of her assault, heís supportive when she deals with a family tragedy, heís good with children Ė who wouldnít love this guy? Maybe Theresa was a more likable character in Body Check when Michael first met her, but in Fair Play she is so defensive and brittle that she hardly seems to be worth his efforts. Thanks to an understanding therapist, she finally comes out of her shell and sees the light after devoting too much energy to a blonde preppy type who is obviously Mr. Wrong, but I gave up on her long before Michael did. †

Fair Play is more engaging when it concentrates on Michael. Heís nearing the end of his career and has to face the painful reality that his playing days are numbered. The presence of an obnoxious rookie who covets Michaelís spot on the third line doesnít help. Neither does the fact that the coach rebuking him for his lack of concentration is his friend and former teammate, Ty Gallagher. Michaelís relationship with his traditional conservative brother is fraught with conflict too, and his attempts to modernize Danteís are met with resistance. The interactions between the two brothers, Italian men who arenít comfortable discussing their feelings, are funny and sweet. The hockey scenes sizzle with excitement and accuracy, and the outcomes of the games are refreshingly unpredictable. †

Martin has been compared to Rachel Gibson because both women have written hockey-themed romances, but Martinís novels include more drama and less screwball comedy. Although the love story in Fair Playnít work for me, I have no doubt that readers will be sighing over the too-good-to-be-true Michael Dante. As for Deirdre Martin, I think she should try writing a family saga or a pure sports novel. Sheís a talented writer and I suspect her growing number of fans would follow her past the boundaries of the romance genre. †

--Susan Scribner

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