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Homeport by Nora Roberts
(Putnam, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-399-14387-4
*****
Nora Roberts is predictable in only one way…whatever she writes is almost invariably a joy to read. This book departs from the gritty style she has often used with her larger suspense stories. Instead, her characters are softer with frequent flashes of humor employed to keep the story moving at her usual exquisite pace.

The Jones of Jones Point Landing, Maine, have evolved from philandering capitalists to academicians. The father, Dr. Jones, spent all his time away from home at one archeological dig or another. This left the mother, Dr. Elizabeth Standford-Jones, full rein in molding Andrew and Miranda into Ph.D. art historians as well.

Having grown up in a family that redefines dysfunctional, overachieving Andrew and Miranda exhibit different reactions to the emotional abuse. Andrew, after a failed marriage to Dr. Elise Warfield is sinking deeper and deeper into the numbness of alcoholism. Miranda, with a haunting vulnerability, and all the finesse of the energizer bunny, just keeps on going.

The book opens as Miranda is returning from a lecture tour and is mugged at her Maine doorstep. Having only the time to replace her passport, she hastens to respond to her mother's command to come to Florence for a job at her art institute, Standjo. Her assignment is to validate or not, a bronze sculpture found by a plumber in a basement. The location of the find and the quality of the workmanship has led the Italian government to believe the bronze is 500 years old. Miranda believes the art to be genuine and her scientific testing is in the process of supporting this conclusion when the press breaks the story. Immediately the Standjo Institute is fired and the bronze is taken to another institute for testing.

Her mother believes that Miranda leaked the story to the media and sends her home in disgrace. Since Miranda has lived a lifetime without her mother's approval, she doesn't go into a decline. She merely steps back into her managing role at the family's art institute in Maine. Enter Ryan Boldari, a very successful gallery owner from New York. He is there, ostensibly, with a proposal to trade a few pieces of art for purposes of exhibition.

In reality, Ryan is the product of a large loving family and has become an overachieving thief. Stealing only art objects by special order for his clients, he has outwitted museums, institutes and treasure havens the world over. Is this someone you could love? By the time Ms. Roberts weaves her magic, let me assure you, one could be left with the feeling of "oh well, it was probably insured anyway."

Attracted to Miranda, Ryan regrets that one of her bronzes is on his real shopping list. By dark of night, he quickly acquires it and returns home. Yes, Miranda misses him, but not enough to enjoy being awakened by him one night, arm around her throat, being accused of harboring a forgery. Ryan cheerfully admits stealing her bronze, but is very annoyed that he has lost face with his client by trying to pass it off as an original.

Miranda, who had achieved some fame with her validation of this particular bronze, is appalled. Her tests confirm that the piece Ryan stole is a sham. About the same time, the bronze piece in Italy is declared to be phony. Since bronzes are her specialty, her credibility is in tatters and her father appears to force her to take a leave of absence from the institute. Translate that to being hung out to dry.

Now the fun begins as Miranda and Ryan unravel the plot. If you have been to Florence, you will enjoy revisiting it with them. If you have traveled in Maine, you will be reacquainted with its stern and rockbound coast. If you like history, you will enjoy learning some Italian history. If you know little about archeology, the various processes of dating art will open your eyes.

If you think of fiction as art, you will be again reminded that Nora Roberts is one of the most formidable wordsmiths in our time.

--Thea Davis


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