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A Charmed Place
by Antoinette Stockenberg
(St. Martin's, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-312-96597-4
****
A Charmed Place marks a solid return to form for contemporary novelist Antoinette Stockenberg, who stumbled in her previous release Dream a Little Dream. After that book's brief detour to New York's Hudson River, Stockenberg has wisely chosen to resume setting her novels in her native New England, where her characters seem much more at home. Surprisingly, the author's trademark supernatural themes are virtually absent, but that doesn't detract from an enjoyable read.

Maddie Regan has spent numerous summers at Sandy Point, Cape Cod, since her childhood, but this one seems destined for disaster. Her mother doesn't want to come for her usual visit because she is still in deep mourning for Maddie's father, who was killed during a carjacking a year ago. Her 14 year old daughter Tracy is hitting the peak of her rebellious stage and is much more kindly disposed towards Maddie's ex-husband Michael's laissez-faire attitude than her mother's loving discipline. While Maddie's lifelong friends, the vixenish Norah and the sweetly dumpy Joan, are constant fixtures, there is a new face at Sandy Point. It belongs to Dan Hawke, a world-weary CNN war correspondent who also happens to be the lost love of Maddie's life. And for some unknown reason he has rented the lighthouse that is right next door to Maddie's home.

Twenty years ago, as college students, Maddie and Dan engaged in a torrid affair that ended when Maddie's father, a respected physics professor, was hurt in a lab fire allegedly set by Dan and his radical friends. A horrified Maddie refused to have anything to do with Dan after that incident and married the charming but faithless Michael shortly thereafter. But Dan has had a recent life-altering experience, and he's determined that nothing will keep him from claiming Maddie forever this time.

While Maddie tries to decide if her heart is ready to take Dan back, she also begins to suspect that her father's death was more than a simple carjacking. Then Michael starts acting irrational and tries to deepen the wedge between Maddie and her daughter. All of these storylines converge during a devastating hurricane.

Stockenberg populates the novel with a multitude of interesting, quirky characters. Some of them are almost more intriguing than the hero and heroine. My favorite was Maddie's friend Nora, whose unforgettable opening words, upon seeing Dan Hawke, are "He'd look perfect tied to my bedposts." She's a fascinating femme fatale, whose friendship with Maddie and natural man-hunting instincts towards Dan are in intense conflict. I couldn't predict her actions, and I wanted to read more about her. The author also has quite a talent for creating realistic adolescents that is to say, you sympathize with them while you also want to smack them. Tracy is no exception.

Maddie is a typical Stockenberg heroine a sympathetic, realistic and mature woman who doesn't always act wisely in the face of too much stress. Dan is a welcome step up from some of the author's recent hostile or clueless heroes. He is pretty single-minded in his pursuit of Maddie, yet he too makes a few unwise decisions that jeopardize their happiness. I would have liked to have experienced more of the relationship between the two characters while they were in college - perhaps a few flashback scenes so that I would have fully appreciated the satisfaction of their reunion.

After six books that featured ghosts, past lives or other supernatural phenomena, it's nice to see that Stockenberg doesn't have to use them to make this story work. The live characters and the author's obvious affection for the New England setting are perfectly capable of carrying the novel without any gimmicks.

--Susan Scribner


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