The Last Valentine by James Pratt
(St. Martin's, $21.95, G) ISBN 0-312-18121-3
A young man leaves to fight in World War II, saying goodbye to his adoring wife at the train station with a promise to someday return with the Valentine she has given him in hand. A faithful wife revisits the train station every Valentine's Day for fifty years, waiting for the promise to be fulfilled. The woman finally has her prayers answered in an unusual, miraculous way. Sound like a good old fashioned tearjerker of a love story? Unfortunately, it's not. The Last Valentine was prominently displayed in the Romance section of my local Borders bookstore, and I was intrigued by its premise and classy-looking cover, but the execution left a lot to be desired.

The book isn't really a romance; it's a sermon about how we should live our lives. The author, a first- time novelist, apparently is a motivational speaker and I'd bet he's very successful in his career. But as a writer he has a lot to learn, primarily how to develop realistic, multi-faceted characters.

The World War II love story is framed by a secondary, contemporary romance. Susan Allison, a young television reporter, reluctantly contacts Neil Thomas Jr. to do a story on his parents' tragic but uplifting saga. Reading and hearing about the Last Valentine supposedly causes Susan to forgo her self-imposed isolation and fall in love with Neil Jr., but the two characters are so sketchy it's impossible to know why either would succumb so quickly. Neil Jr.'s beloved wife of many years has recently died of cancer, and his recollections of their perfect relationship weaken the already thin romance with Susan.

The story of Neil Jr.'s parents, Caroline and Neil Sr., is a little more engaging, but again Caroline is so two-dimensional that it's hard to identify with or care about this sweet but bland woman. She has raised Neil Jr. to adulthood single-handedly, but as the author never shows or tells us any information about Neil Jr.'s childhood there's no appreciation of the effort and sacrifice that must have been involved. Only Neil Sr. comes off as an interesting character, and his fate does strike emotional chords in the reader. But Neil Sr.'s story comprises primarily war scenes as he learns lessons about loving God, his comrades and even his enemies. These scenes are more poignant than any between Neil Sr. and the sainted Caroline.

The frequent shifting among time periods is confusing and makes a simple plot unnecessarily hard to follow. For some unknown reason, Neil Jr.'s point of view is first person, which seems meaningless since we never really get to know him as a genuine human being.

The "miracle" of The Last Valentine is charming, although you can see it coming from the opening pages. Meanwhile, you have to wade through too many well-meaning but pedantic and obvious sermons about "true love is like a metal tested in fire" and "is it worth risking the thorns to have the rose?" As I closed the book, I felt that I had been sitting in a Sunday school classroom or browsing through a "Inspirational Sayings" handbook, but it sure didn't feel like I had read a romance. I couldn't help comparing this novel unfavorably with The Notebook, which had many of the same messages but conveyed them subtly and beautifully through the characters' actions.

If, like me, you wondered about that book with the romantic title and pretty cover at your local bookstore, don't bother.

--Susan Scribner

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