Catch a Dream by Mary Jane Meier
(Onyx, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-40975-2
**
The debut contemporary romance novel by Mary Jane Meier contains too many clichés and a heroine who puts the "duh" in "dumb blonde." As I read the first few chapters, I was sure I was dealing with a one-heart groaner. But about halfway through, the author seemed to settle down and gain some confidence in herself and her characters. The end result was an uneven, frustrating read.

When the back cover of the book describes the heroine as "relentlessly perky," you know you're in trouble (Frankly, I'm in favor of a Constitutional amendment banning perky heroines). When said heroine, Meg Delaney, dumps her no-good boyfriend and marches off into the wilds of Yellowstone Park with neither tent nor warm clothing in the first chapter, you realize with sinking heart that you've entered the "Too Stupid to Live" zone. Of course Meg is rescued - by rancher and former park ranger Zack Burkhart. I wasn't surprised when Zack had to save Meg from falling off a cliff. But I was amazed that the author actually stooped to the old "trip over the tent poles and fall into the hero's arms" scene. To add insult to injury, just a few pages later the reader is treated to the infamous "hero's friend appears and gets the wrong idea when the heroine just happens to peek out of the tent with no pants on." Oh silly Meg, it's freezing cold in the mountains, but you just had to see who was visiting before you put on the sweat pants Zack had lent you? Please, go find another reader to annoy.

Meg is clearly a candidate for the Darwin Awards (which commemorate individuals who "improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it in really stupid ways"). Zack has no choice but to bring her back to his Idaho ranch while she sorts out her life. She has no family, no job (ex-boyfriend was also her boss), no money and an eensy-weensy secret that she doesn't want Zack to know. Fortunately for the reader, things start looking up when Meg arrives at the ranch. She immediately charms Zack's five-year-old son, who has been quiet and withdrawn since his mother died in a river rafting accident a year ago. She actually proves to have a brain, as she puts her computer and organizational skills to use fixing up Zack's business and home. But despite Zack's attraction to this cheerful "Easter chick," he tries to keep his distance because he's still in love with his dead wife. Plus he's preoccupied with a different problem. Several of his prize llamas have recently met untimely ends, and he's starting to think the deaths are more than accidents or coincidence.

As Little Meg Sunshine gradually enchants Zack, she also has to deal with Winona, Zack's Sioux mother-in-law, a castoff from a Grade B Western movie who spouts the worst stereotypical nonsense this side of Cassie Edwards. When is the last time you heard a real Native American call someone "paleface"? Meg also has to contend with the sheriff's daughter, a nymphomaniac who is played for laughs. Despite the woman's hefty cleavage, the humor falls flat.

I did find myself involved by the last hundred pages of the novel, when Meg's secret comes out and the covert attacks on Zack's ranch become more explicit and personal. Meg does have some smarts and a personality to offer Zack and the reader - why does Mary Jane Meier have to cheapen her by highlighting the ditziness factor so much in the novel's first half? There's some genuine poignancy in Zack's opening his heart to another woman and Meg's finding the first real home and family she's known, but unfortunately much of that true emotion is buried beneath the novel's weaknesses.

The bottom line is that 350 pages seemed much longer than they should have, primarily because I had to keep putting the book aside to mutter "Puh-lease!" I'll give Mary Jane Meier the benefit of the doubt and chalk this up to a debut novelist's inexperience.

--Susan Scribner


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