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Seventh Heaven by Catherine Anderson
(Avon, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-79938-3
The good news is that Seventh Heaven is an engaging read I strongly recommend. The bad news is that I'm not going to be able to give you a lot of reasons to support that assertion without giving away too much of the plot and ruining its intensity for you. Bearing that in mind, the following is a bare bones divulgence and assessment of the story line:

Marilee Nelson is haunted by a terrible secret (and yes, it is a very bad one). It's a secret she will share with no one, including her fiancé Joe Lakota. Rather than confide in him, Marilee breaks their engagement and convinces Joe that she has left him for someone else. Heartbroken, Joe leaves for the big city and embarks on a high profile professional football career. Seventh Heaven begins ten years later.

Having recently been granted custody of his 4-year-old son Zachary, 31-year-old Joe Lakota moves back to his hometown in Oregon to raise him. After ten years, he is still and will always be in love with Marilee Nelson. All of their lives - clear up until she broke off their engagement ten years past - the couple had been best friends, inseparable from the time Marilee was five and Joe was eight. It doesn't take Joe long to figure out that his boyhood sweetheart had lied about leaving him for another man, nor does it take him long to figure out her secret, or at least, a fundamental part of it. The problem for Joe now is figuring out how to get through to Marilee and pick up where they left off ten years ago.

Marilee never stopped loving Joe, but she doesn't feel any more able to confide in him at age 28 than she had at age 18. There were valid reasons why Marilee kept her secret and as far as she can tell, those reasons haven't changed. But Joe won't give up on her or the love they have shared all of these years. When Joe's ex-wife (who was abusive to their son) petitions to regain custody, Joe asks Marilee to help him in the courts by marrying him.

Marilee realizes she has been handed a second chance at happiness with Joe, but will she find the courage to take it?

The irony of Seventh Heaven is that for the first half of the novel Marilee comes across as a clichéd "wilting flower" heroine...not a personal favorite of mine. Marilee's reaction to her secret feels out of proportion to the secret itself, not in terms of the intensity of her reaction, but in terms of the duration (ten years) of it. But then in the second half, the reader learns alongside the hero that even if we might have thought we knew the extent of Marilee's secret, we didn't really have a clue as to how gruesome and appalling it truly is. At this point in the book, Marilee seems more like a warrior than a wilting flower. She only gets better and better as she allows herself to get in touch with her anger and emotions for the first time in ten years.

Joe is impossible not to love. He's the stuff heroes are made of. He supports Marilee with unconditional love while giving her the time she needs to cope with her secret, but at the same time he refuses to walk away from her and relentlessly gives her the needed nudges in the right direction.

There are a couple of spots in the novel's first half where the pace of the book slows down a bit, though not so much as to bore you. The last half of Seventh Heaven is extremely fast-paced and more than compensates for any lagging moments experienced earlier. As the reader learns more and more of Marilee's secret, and then again when a murder and an indictment come into play, it becomes next to impossible to put this book down.

There isn't much to offer you in the way of criticism, for if it hadn't been for those couple of aforementioned times during the book's first half where the story line slowed down a bit, I would have given the novel an unequivocal five heart rating. Don't let those brief lagging moments keep you from purchasing Seventh Heaven. The majority of Catherine Anderson's latest literary effort is a real page turner.

--Tina Engler

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