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Never Again by Jo-Ann Power
(Pocket Books, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-671-00899-4
***
If you listen long enough to readers talking about romances it becomes apparent that "chemistry" is as important an element in the reading experience as it is in the characters' relationships. Some books ring your chimes; some books don't – and it's not always possible to explain exactly why.

I think of that spark that ignites when I read a great book as a connection that is forged between myself and the author's imagination, the delighted discovery of a kindred mind; one whose values, preferences and interests mirror my own and extend them in fascinating new directions. But what about the book that doesn't strike a spark? Many times that's easily explained: books that are too silly, too ugly, too unsophisticated are easy to dismiss and provide plenty of evidence to justify my rejection.

The hard ones are the perfectly worthy books that just lack "chemistry." Like the character in a romance who loses out to the hero, such books often have qualities similar to the great ones, but some mysterious, indefinable quality of attraction is missing. Never Again was such a book for me.

It was wonderfully refreshing to find the story set in Victorian England. Much as I adore the Regency, variety is always welcome. Gavin Sutherland is a Member of Parliament who becomes involved in a public altercation with another member who is subsequently murdered. In part because of the notoriety generated by some particularly nasty political cartoons illustrating the quarrel, Gavin is suspected of the murder and his career is ruined.

Gavin's character is portrayed as impetuous, passionate, and volatile; he feels victimized by the scandal and confused by public response to his actions. My first impression of him was that he was entirely too self-pitying and ineffectual, yet this is exactly the sort of verisimilitude that I might admire in another characterization.

Gavin, abandoned by his family and fiancée, supports himself by writing a mystery novel that turns out to be extremely popular. Determined to use this success to discover the truth about the incident that led to his disgrace, Gavin begins a second novel based on the murder. He hopes that by including previously unpublished information about the crime in the story, he will provoke the murderer to betray himself.

Raine Montand is a young American woman living in London who has used her artistic ability to establish herself as a successful newspaper cartoonist. Working under a nom de plume, she drew the cartoon that had such a disastrous impact on Gavin's career. Overcome with remorse, she is determined to make amends and presents herself –disguised as a widow – as a candidate for the position of Gavin's secretary.

Of course she is hired, and the remainder of the story revolves around their efforts to solve the mystery of who murdered the Member of Parliament and why, and their efforts to maintain a respectable relationship while falling inexorably in love. Raine is tormented by the knowledge of her deception, and her growing awareness of her love is tainted by the guilt she feels at having done Gavin so grave an injustice through her cartoons. She is determined to help him and then leave him so that he may find happiness. Gavin is intrigued by the mystery that surrounds Raine, enormously grateful for her help and concern, and captivated by her beauty, intelligence and charm. He knows that he loves her and is determined to tread carefully so as not to lose her.

Indeed, as much of the story concerns the dynamics of their relationship, as the resolution of the mystery. I found myself wanting to see more of their sleuthing skills, and less of their courtship. Raine is portrayed as a very intelligent woman, but it's not until very near the end that she actually starts putting the pieces of the mystery together. Gavin is publishing his novel as a serialization, which adds some interesting tension as his version of the story is gradually revealed, and I found myself wanting more of that element of the plot.

In spite of these minor dissatisfactions, I have to acknowledge that this is a serious historical novel. These characters are substantial, they are solidly anchored in a realistic setting, and their concerns are reasonable. So why didn't I like it more?

For one thing, I was continually jolted out of the story by nagging oddities in the writing, itself: inappropriate tenses, unusual juxtapositions of phrasing, bits of dialogue that didn't ring true. These lapses were especially annoying because, overall, the writing is very good. Finally, however, I have to come back to "chemistry." It just wasn't there for me.

If you are looking for a serious novel with an unobtrusive mystery and emotionally realistic characters, and are untroubled by the occasional odd kick in a writer's gallop, this book may be for you. Alas, my response to it was obstinately platonic…

--Bev Hill


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