Twist of Fate by Mary Jo Putney
(Jove, $7.50, PG) ISBN 0-515-13545-3
† As a liberal social worker, I applaud Mary Jo Putneyís position on capital punishment and support of the Big Sisters/Little Sisters mentoring program. As a romance novel reviewer, however, I have to admit that I was terribly disappointed by Twist of Fate, which reads more like a policy paper than a compelling story. †

High-powered attorney Val Covington receives an unexpected financial windfall and decides to leave her Baltimore law firm partnership to open her own office where she can ďdo good, not just well,Ē including a healthy share of pro bono work. Valís first new case is a major challenge Ė her assistant Kendra wants her to save her former lover, Daniel, who has been on death row for 17 years for murdering a policeman. Kendra knows Daniel is innocent, yet he is just a few months away from his scheduled execution date. †

Fortunately, Val has an ally in her seemingly impossible fight. Rob Smith, owner of the building in which Val sets up her new practice, is a handsome and intelligent ex-Marine who offers to do the caseís investigative work while she handles the legal maneuvering. Val is happy to have Rob on her side, and more than a little attracted to him, but she wonders why he is so eager to embrace her cause. As they work against the clock to free Daniel, Val contends with Robís secret past and her own fear of commitment. Will they find the evidence they need in time, and will their efforts bring them closer together or keep them apart for good? †

Iíve complained about the proliferation of contemporary romances with ditzy heroines and insipid screwball plots, so I should be happy that Mary Jo Putneyís third contemporary has an intelligent heroine who addresses a serious issue, right? Unfortunately, my initial enthusiasm about the novel was quickly dampened by its heavy-handed, one-sided treatment of capital punishment. Characters make long speeches condemning its barbarism, arbitrariness and inequitable application to low-income defendants. No space is allotted to opposing views, such as those expressed by families of murder victims who have valid reasons to support the death penalty. Iím against capital punishment myself, but I felt uncomfortable with Putneyís failure to present a viable character who could present the other side. †

Twist of Fate fails in other ways as well. In the novelís acknowledgments, Putney thanks several individuals for their help in her attempts to ďdo justiceĒ to its African-American characters. Unfortunately, I think her consultants didnít provide strong enough guidance, because I found these characters to be flat and awkward. No matter how often Putney throws in the words Homey or Dude, itís obvious that sheís a lily-white author who shouldnít pretend otherwise. I commend her for her attempts to show cultural sensitivity but the results are almost laughable. †

While both Val and Rob are intelligent, likeable characters, their romance is strangely devoid of passion, perhaps because they are both so intellectual about it. They openly communicate about why Val is commitment-shy (itís Daddy issues, naturally) but they talk so much that they fritter away all of the passion and mystique. I almost applauded when Val produced a condom during their first love scene without apologies for taking care of her own protection, but besides that brief scene the pair might as well have been best friends instead of lovers. Too many of their interactions are long-winded monologues about capital punishment; while itís comforting to know they agree on that issue, itís hard to imagine that one issue alone is enough to secure a long-term relationship. Much of the storyís relationship energy is directed towards Valís involvement with a young orphan through the Big Sister/Little Sister program. Again, a laudable program, but is it realistic that a girl who had endured the violent death of both parents would bond to Val so quickly and easily? †

I was one of Putneyís most vocal defenders when her first contemporary novel, The Burning Point was released in 2000. Some angry readers claimed that her portrayal of a former domestic abuse perpetrator was misleading and possibly even dangerous to women who might be tempted to romanticize their own abusers. I supported the novelís sizzling love story and realistic depiction of a man who had taken the necessary steps to change his negative behaviors. But I canít defend Twist of Fate in the same way; itís a strong indictment of the injustice of the death penalty, but itís a mediocre romance. Next time I hope Putney returns her focus to storytelling. If she has an axe to grind, let her write a letter to her Congressman or organize a rally instead. †

--Susan Scribner

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