Body Check

Fair Play

Total Rush

The Penalty Box
by Deirdre Martin
(Berkley, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-20890-7
Have you ever noticed how some people never seem to make it out of high school? The Penalty Box features a hero and heroine who simply can't leave it behind, and I suspect that readers may not have the patience to wait for them to grow up and get on with adult life.

Katie Fisher gets stuck going to her ten-year reunion when her mother sends the RSVP back for her. Katie was fat and nerdy in high school, teased unmercifully by the popular kids, and dreads the thought of facing them now. Which really makes no sense, because we're told that Katie is now slim, stunning, and filled with self-confidence in her new role as a sociology professor at a prestigious college. Katie is on a year-long sabbatical (at age 28?) to write a book, and has returned to her hometown to live with her mother and her young nephew. Katie's sister is in a residential drug treatment program.

Now, really. How fun would it be to have a heroine like this attend the reunion, have a great time, and cheerfully tell the snotty cheerleader crowd to kiss her shapely butt? In Katie's case, however, her "self-confidence" only means she runs away when Liz Flaherty, rich-bitch tormentor, starts "reminiscing" about what a loser Katie was in high school. No matter that everyone else at the reunion has been kind and friendly; Liz is nasty to her, just like high school, so Katie panics and runs. On the way out the door, she meets Paul Dorn, high-school hockey jock and another former tormentor. Paul, however, is impressed by Katie's new look and, after a brief conversation, agrees to be interviewed for the book she's writing on sports and male identity.

Paul is a former star for the New York Blades of the NHL. His career came to an early end after a series of concussions, and he's now the owner of a sports-themed bar called The Penalty Box, where he regales customers with stories of his past exploits on the ice. Paul, desperate to recapture some of the glory, ends up coaching a kids' team that includes Katie's nephew and Liz's son, bringing him and Katie into conflict. So Katie can't get past the fact that she was once fat, and Paul can't get past the fact that his pro career is over. These two are attracted to one another, but each is trucking a U-Haul's worth of emotional baggage, and frankly, they were tiresome.

So much of this book felt contrived just to set up the humor. On their first "date," for instance, Katie refuses to eat anything because of the calories. So she drinks three glasses of wine on an empty stomach and throws up. This is despite the fact that she runs five miles a day and is a lifetime member of a weight-control program. Frankly, this gives dieters everywhere a bad name. Paul gets drunk after the reunion, thinks with his zipper, and ends up sleeping with Liz, whom he dated in high school and now pretty much despises. This will set up a misunderstanding later in the book. Get the picture? Neither of these two displays much self-understanding, and in the end, neither of them was very sympathetic. And their romance was less-than-believable at best.

The most interesting character in the book is Katie's sister, Mina, who is fighting years of substance abuse and losing ground. She's prickly, bitchy, and absolutely believable for her circumstances. Paul and Katie, however, just feel contrived.

The Penalty Box might work as a character study of two people who define themselves by who they were at age 18, but as a romance, it's a flop. Approach this one with caution.

--Cathy Sova

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