The Last Valentine

 
Ticket Home by James Michael Pratt
(St. Martin's, $23.95, G) ISBN 0-312-26633-2
*
Believe it or not, as a reviewer I try to be objective and to give every book a fair chance to impress me. So, as much as I disliked James Michael Pratt's debut novel, The Last Valentine, I desperately tried to find something positive to say about his latest, Ticket Home. It was just impossible, though. From the predictable plot to the embarrassingly awkward writing and the flat-as-a-pancake characterization, the book was a one-heart read all the way. I'll have to borrow the words of the great movie critic Pauline Kael, who once wrote, "It is of an unbelievable badness; it brings back clichés you didn't know you knew. You can't get angry at something this stupefying; it seems to have been made by trolls."

I'll try not to spoil the plot, although the author gives it away by the fourth page. In the waning years of the Great Depression, identical twins Lucian and Norman Parker find themselves in love with the same woman. But their time is short - Mary Jane Harrison is eager to leave behind their small Oklahoma town and join the rest of the Dust Bowl refugees who are seeking their fortune in California. Quiet, serious Norman seems to have the upper hand, but then the fun-loving Lucian meets her in California, woos and wins her. But Lucian and Mary Jane's wedded bliss is brief; the two Parker boys are sent oversees to the Philippines after war is declared on Japan. They endure the horrors of the March of Bataan and Japanese P.O.W. camp, but only one twin comes home alive.

Fifty-five years later, the surviving twin realizes he has to make peace with the brother he left behind and the secret he has kept for many years. With the last remnants of his failing health, he plans a trip back to the Philippines to visit his brother's grave and beg for forgiveness.

If you haven't figured out the secret by now, I suggest you enroll in Fictional Clichés 101. Come on, identical twins in love with the same woman, only one survives World War II but comes home with a Big Secret...need I say more? Sure, romances sometimes use tired and true plots. Great romances rise above the clichés and breathe new life into the story. This is not a great romance.

First of all, poor Mary Jane isn't given a personality to speak of. Yes, she's beautiful, but that's about all the two brothers seem to notice about her. She's amazingly good and selfless (like all of the characters in this book other than the Japanese), but there's little to distinguish her from a store mannequin. Why these two brothers would risk their lifelong bond for her is never satisfactorily explained.

Then there's the writing style, which can charitably be described as "amateurish." Mr. Pratt seems sincere in his desire to write books of faith and romance, but he is just not a writer. His sentences are awkward and his characterizations wafer-thin. Paragraphs like this one just boggle the mind with their gracelessness:

The air conditioning reminded him that in hours to come he would greet a morning filled with steamy vapors in a lush green land made up of hundreds of tropical islands and millions of struggling people who didn't share, and never would, the comforts of life he was able to give to his beloved "Missy" as he called her.

Okay, so the guy can't write romance, I thought, at least the war scenes will be powerful. Wrong. Even the scenes set in the besieged Philippines were so poorly written that I remained unaffected as Pratt detailed illness, death, destruction and man's inhumanity to man. This section should have been a tear-jerker, but instead it was just jerky. And I won't even mention Pratt's offensive depiction of the Japanese, even if he does offer an explanation for his political incorrectness in an author's postscript.

Ticket Home is definitely not a book for the 21st century woman. The only natural audience I can imagine for the story are elderly males who yearn for the good old days when men were men, women were fragile flowers, and you could easily tell the good guys from the bad. Yet Pratt's two previous novels have been bestsellers, and judging from the comments at Amazon, readers of both genders find his work inspirational. I guess it shouldn't bother me, but I can't help thinking of all of the talented female romance authors who toil in obscurity - authors who can create interesting, realistic characters instead of Pratt's paper dolls. Why don't the bestseller lists feature authors like Carla Kelly, whose depictions of battle-weary soldiers leave Pratt in the dust?

One thing James Michael Pratt has accomplished - he's made that other male faux-romance-novelist, Nicholas Sparks, look good. The only ticket I wanted as I read Ticket Home was an express ride to the end of the book.

--Susan Scribner


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