Something Unpredictable
by Barbara Chepaitis
(Atria, $24, PG) ISBN 0-7434-3752-7
****
In my next life I’m coming back as a woman named Barbara. Maybe then I’ll become a talented Women’s Fiction author like Barbara Bretton, Barbara Samuel, Barbara Delinsky - and Barbara Chepaitis. In her third mainstream novel, Chepaitis tells a familiar tale of a woman who finds her true calling and true love, but the talented author’s heroine and setting are just quirky enough to make the story - well, slightly unpredictable.

There are very few novels that start out with their heroine gingerly getting into a bathtub full of blue Jell-O, but to 31-year-old Delilah it’s just another day. Overly educated and underachieving, Delilah lives with her parents in a large Key West home along with her casual boyfriend Thomas, a photographer whose enthusiasm for his latest project overcomes Delilah’s reservations about being temporarily dyed indigo. Unlike her social activist mother and stock-market savvy father, Delilah has never felt passionate about anything. So when Delilah’s mother unexpectedly uncovers her own birth mother living in upstate New York, the family automatically sends Delilah to investigate, figuring she has nothing better to do with her time.

There’s no warm-hearted reunion awaiting Delilah, only a prickly old woman named Carla who owns 200 acres of land and a ramshackle old house where she has retired after years of taming tigers for her uncle’s circus. Despite the lack of enthusiastic welcome from her long-lost grandmother, Delilah decides to stick around for a while to help out. She meets regular visitors such as Kootch the dwarf and Singing Stan, the septic man, and befriends Jack, a handsome one-eyed handyman who appreciates Delilah’s slightly skewed approach to life. The situation gets really messy when she runs into her ex-fiancé, Michael, and copes with an unexpected visit from the feckless Thomas. When Delilah faces a crisis, she is finally forced to admit that past tragedies have made her wary of committing to anyone or anything. But by then it may be too late to preserve the one relationship she has grown to cherish.

Bookstore shelves are full of women who have yet to find their passion in life, but Barbara Chepaitis invigorates Delilah’s journey with an infusion of wry humor, lyrical writing and spirituality. Each chapter is identified by one or more of nature’s four elements: water, earth, air and fire, but it’s not until Delilah has her epiphany that all four elements finally blend together in harmony. Like Barbara Samuel, Chepaitis utilizes Native American flavor, but instead of the Southwest Navajo, this novel features the Mohawk Indians of New York State, who prove to be just as intriguing. I must admit that I was predisposed to appreciate this book because it takes place near my original hometown of Albany. It’s nice to see credit being given to the Capital District region’s numerous gifts after too many years of lurking in the shadow of the Big Apple.

Much of the humor in the novel derives from Delilah’s interactions with her best friend Monica. The two women refer to themselves as the Foundation because, as Monica claims, they have dated so many losers that it is only right to think of themselves as a charitable operation. Whenever Delilah is confused about her life, she and Monica call a meeting and decide how best to address the mission of the Foundation. Delilah herself is pretty amusing. She has a habit of displaying her knowledge of useless trivia whenever she feels stressed, which leads to some strange comments at inopportune moments.

Something Unpredictable encourages the reader to ponder human beings’ responsibility to the earth and to each other, and to question what keeps us going in the face of life’s unpredictabilities and tragedies. Chepaitis doesn’t offer any startlingly original answers, but Delilah’s quest to form her own opinions is an enjoyable and satisfying one. Three novels into her career, and Barbara Chepaitis has already hit her stride. As for me, is it too late for a name change…?

--Susan Scribner


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