317 Beulah Street by Sandra Steffen
(Zebra, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-7132-9
In 317 Beulah Street, Sandra Steffen skillfully weaves together three plot lines, resulting in a less than perfect, but still enjoyable, story.

Thirty-four-year-old Jenna Proffit was widowed two years ago when her husband died of an aneurysm. Shortly before Craig’s death, they bought a big, old house – 317 Beulah Street, in fact – that had been divided into apartments. They planned to renovate it and make it into a single family home once again, but Craig’s death changed all that. Jenna’s salary as a kindergarten teacher was not enough to allow her to keep their home; instead she and eight-year-old Benji and nine-year-old Brandon moved into one of the apartments and continued to rent out the other two.

The news of Craig’s death only caught up with his brother, Nick, two years after Craig’s death. Nick is a world-renowned nature photographer – his latest spread is in the National Geographic - with no fixed address, and it was only by chance that he got Jenna’s letter. He received it as he lay ill with a virulent fever in a village clinic in El Salvador. One month later he is in Harmony Hills, Georgia, trying to figure out why his sister-in-law and nephews have “’fallen on hard times.’” Craig was a successful small-town lawyer, and the Proffit family is wealthy. Why is Jenna struggling?

Nick quickly discovers that, while there is nothing sinister about Craig’s death, there is something decidedly strange about his embezzlement of a trust fund, which came to light after his death. Jenna is certain Craig wasn’t stealing, but she can’t explain the $100,000 deposit made to their account on the day he suffered his aneurysm. His law partners believe he took the money to pay for renovations to the Beulah Street house.

Nick isn’t sure what to believe. Craig was three years older than Nick, and their father’s darling. Nick was grew up hearing, “’Why can’t you be more like Craig?’” Nothing Nick ever did was right in his father’s eyes, so he countered by becoming a hell-raiser and Harmony’s bad boy. Craig, on the other hand, was always the straightest of straight arrows, but there is that $100,000….

If Nick doesn’t know how he feels about Craig, he knows how he feels about Jenna. He’s loved her since they were kids, growing up together, and he is still in love with her. Jenna had a good marriage with Craig, but he’s been gone two years, and she has always been attracted to Nick, even though she never understood him. Nick’s wavering on Craig’s guilt or innocence upsets her – Jenna never doubted Craig’s innocence for a minute – while Nick worries that Jenna will compare him to Craig and that he will be found wanting. Personally, if Jenna’s romance with Nick ended up in bed, I didn’t see how she could fail to compare them, and…again, personally…I found that a little icky.

The embezzlement and Jenna and Nick’s push-pull attraction are two strands of Ms. Steffen’s story. The third strand is Jenna’s friendships with her tenants: 72-year-old Twyla Mae Johnson; coffee shop owner, Suzanne Nash and her daughter, Kenzie; and the newest tenant, Faith Silvers and her daughter, Rachel. Twyla Mae and Suzanne were both fully fleshed out characters, with Suzanne having almost as important a role as Nick and Jenna. Suzanne walked a narrow line between sassy and smartass, so I didn’t always like her, but I always recognized her. We’ve all known our Suzannes.

The third tenant, Faith, didn’t appear until midway through the book. Hints are dropped that her marriage was strange and that she too may have fallen on hard times, but we never get the full story of her husband’s illness and why she picked Harmony, Georgia, when she wanted a change. Ms. Steffen has given herself many characters to juggle, and Faith Silvers feels like she got dropped.

One secondary character that came through loud and clear was the climate. 317 Beulah Street takes place in May, and when Ms. Steffen writes, “It was one of those green-and-yellow May mornings here in Georgia when the sun was high above the trees and the air was thick with humidity,” I can feel the heat and smell her green-and-yellow air. Ms. Steffen’s descriptions of a small town in the South grounded her story nicely.

Once I got past the ick-factor attached to Jenna and Nick’s romance, I enjoyed 317 Beulah Street. The issues Nick and Jenna needed to resolve were both realistic and convincing, and the secondary characters added zip and complexity to the story. I can recommend a visit to Harmony, Georgia.

--Nancy J. Silberstein

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