Handyman by Linda Nichols
(Delacorte, $20, G) ISBN 0-385-33437-0
Handyman is a contemporary romance that might appeal to readers who don't mind the fact that the entire plot is predicated on one Big Giant Misunderstanding. Oh, and those who aren't offended by the suggestion that genuine psychotherapy can easily be faked by any nice guy with a sincere manner.

Contractor Jake Cooper and his partner are assessing the office of Dr. Jason Golding to determine their remodeling bid. Suddenly the door opens and a lovely woman enters, crying bitterly. Before Jake can explain that he is not the trendy San Francisco psychologist, the woman announces she is there for something called the "21 Day Overhaul," and starts to pour out her troubles. Jake is trapped -- and intrigued. His heart goes out to Maggie Ivey, a single mother who is dealing with a sick child, a lecherous boss, an unsafe neighborhood and an impending financial disaster. When the hour is over, instead of setting Maggie straight, Jake formulates a plan to continue his unintentional deception. Fortunately, the real Dr. Golding is out of commission for a while, recuperating from a heart bypass operation in New York City. All of his patients have been notified and their appointments postponed -- except Maggie.

So the stage is set for the development of a bizarre relationship. Jake doesn't know anything about therapy, of course, but he knows he is halfway in love with Maggie and wants to protect her. Maggie doesn't know much about being a therapy patient, but she is surprised at how much better she feels just having someone to talk to.

Meanwhile, the genuine Dr. Golding, a greedy charlatan, is harassing his wife and the hospital staff as he figures out new ways to make more money while interacting with fewer people. Maggie's friend Gina, a former patient of the real Dr. Golding, wonders why Maggie's therapy experience is so different than hers. And Jake's ex-girlfriend Lindsey thinks Jake is finally getting the therapy he needs to repair their broken relationship. How long can Jake keep up the charade? And what will happen when Maggie's 21 Day Overhaul is allegedly complete?

Maggie Ivey had to be one of the most naive heroines I've ever encountered. Okay, maybe she had never been in therapy before, but doesn't she wonder just a teeny, tiny bit when the man she assumes is Dr. Golding repairs her locks, plays with her son and takes her to meet his family? How about when she tells him her boss has been hitting on her and he confronts the man himself? Maggie brushes off her concerns by assuming that Jake's actions are all just "part of the treatment." Frankly, watching her fall in love with a man she still thinks of as "Dr. Golding" is more creepy than romantic to me.

I assume that Handyman is intended to be a gentle satire of psychotherapy, but as a social worker who is married to a psychologist, I'm not amused. Not only is the real therapist portrayed as a rat, but therapy patients, including Gina and Lindsey, are seen as narcissistic women who are totally obsessed with themselves. I disagree with the author's sentiments, voiced by Maggie during one of her outings with Jake disguised as Dr. Golding:

She had no more doubts after today. Dr. Golding knew what he was doing. She was sure of that now. The best therapy was good people, and sitting at old, scarred tables, sipping coffee, eating sweet cake and laughing, hearing the shouts of the children playing outside.

I imagine there are readers out there who are yelling at me to lighten up. It's only a novel, they're saying. Relax and enjoy the fantasy. Well, I was too bothered by the Big Giant Misunderstanding -- and the numerous coincidences I had to swallow -- to enjoy anything. If, however, you can overlook that plot contrivance and the digs against therapy, then you might appreciate the sweet, gentle romance as well as the fairly humorous climactic scene. But for me, this book was anything but therapeutic.

--Susan Scribner

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