All I Want for Christmas

Be My Valentine by Sheila Rabe
(Jove, $6.99, G) ISBN 0-515-12995-X
I read three disparate reviews of Sheila Rabe's debut novel, All I Want For Christmas - one strong endorsement, one lukewarm acceptance, and one virulent pan. I couldn't help wondering how I would experience her sophomore effort. I ended up squarely in the middle, awarding the novel 3 hearts.

The novel features two interrelated romances. Shelby Barrett, a 23 year old aspiring actress, desperately wants an engagement ring from Matt, her boyfriend of three years. Even though he says he loves her, she wants a commitment, damn it! In a fit of pique, she sends flowers to herself in the hope of making Matt jealous. She signs the accompanying card with the seemingly innocuous "David Jones." Matt springs into amateur detective mode and tracks down the origin of the flowers, only to discover that there really is a David Jones who works nearby in downtown Seattle.

Many hijinks ensue as the real David Jones is dragged into the picture. He's a nice guy who takes one look at Shelby and decides that despite her apparent lack of sanity, she's just what he needs in his dull life. Shelby thinks David is sweet, but she doesn't want to hurt him. She's not interested in other men - she just wants Matt to come to his senses and propose. But she just can't help calling David again and again, even as she tells herself that she doesn't want to use him. Meanwhile, she has to listen to constant advice from her smart-mouthed girlfriend, Leeza.

Desperate to keep Shelby but avoid matrimony, Matt turns to his swinging bachelor uncle, Lance, for help. Shelby relies on the guidance of her mother, Diana, a romance novelist who gave up on her own happily-ever-after years ago. Matt wants "Lance Romance" to woo the cynical divorcee, distracting her so that she can't offer any more sage words of wisdom to her daughter. Lance reluctantly agrees, but soon realizes that his feelings for Diana are more genuine than anything he's experienced before. Meanwhile, Diana gets an earful from her smart-mouthed girlfriend, Suzanne (I'll bet there's a big Help Wanted ad out there in Romance Land for smart-mouthed girlfriends - it's a thankless job. They get all the good lines, but none of the guys).

Be My Valentine contains the loose ingredients of a successful screwball comedy. Unfortunately, it falters whenever Shelby is in the picture. Maybe I've just gotten too old, but she seems totally clueless, even for a young woman in her early 20's. She has admirable dreams of making it on Broadway, but she comes across as a manipulator and a whiner for most of the novel. I felt much empathy for David, a truly decent man (and let's hear it for that rarity - a short hero!) who deserved better. Towards the end of the book, one character says, "Don't you hate books where the conflict arises from a simple misunderstanding that could be cleared up with one conversation?" Yes, I do, but I'm also not fond of books where the conflict arises from the heroine's inability to take charge of her life. She may be a stock screwball comedy ditzy ingénue, but even an ingénue needs to inspire compassion from the reader, not just annoyance.

Lance and Diana's romance works a little bit better. At least Diana has independence and maturity - not to mention unresolved broken heart issues - on her side. I give Sheila Rabe credit for hinting - only hinting, mind you - that, at one point in her life, Diana exercised her women's right to choose, a strict taboo in most romance novels.

The characters in Be My Valentine are neither developed enough to feel like real people, nor extreme enough to be interesting fictional creations. The humor is gentle, and the love scenes are squeaky clean. If you like your valentines to be sweet and cute, you may enjoy spending time in scenic Seattle with Shelby, Diana, their friends and their lovers.

--Susan Scribner

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