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Flirting with Pete by Barbara Delinsky
(Scribner, $26.00, PG-13) ISBN 0-7432-4642-X
What is the difference between “romance” and “women’s fiction”? In some cases the answer is obvious: “women’s fiction” does not necessarily provide the “happily ever after” so important to romance readers. However, Barbara Delinsky - who made the transition several books ago - clearly has not abandoned the sensibility that made her such a successful romance author. While her latest release, Flirting with Pete, deals with serious issues, it is highly romantic. Indeed, on the women’s fiction - romance spectrum, it is much closer to the latter than the former.

The heroine, Casey Ellis, is a modern woman with modern problems. A successful counselor with a thriving practice, her personal life is less satisfying. Three years ago, her mother was hit by a car and exists in a permanent vegetative state. Her father, the renowned psychologist, Dr. Cornelius Unger, has just died. Unger played no role in her life. Casey was the result of a one-night stand between a professor and a student. Imagine her surprise when she discovers that her father has left her a Beacon Hill mansion and a trust fund to support the house and the maid and gardener who come with it.

Casey has always been curious about the man who was her father. She had, in her way, followed in his footsteps by becoming a counselor. She had viewed the great man from afar. Now, as she explores her inheritance, she also explores the man who could acknowledge her only in death and her own feelings about the lonely man who lived in the house.

As she searches through Unger’s desk, Casey finds the first part of a compelling case study. It is the story of a young woman who lives alone in a small town. Jenny is more or less isolated by events in the past. Six years earlier, her mother was murdered and her father was sent to prison. Now he is coming home and clearly, Jenny is afraid. Casey is enthralled by the story and convinced that it is a message from her father. She is to help Jenny. And so she begins to search for the rest of the manuscript to discover what happened to Jenny.

The house offers more than an interesting puzzle. It provides an unexpected haven and a fascinating staff. There is the maid, Meg, a young woman who wants only to please Casey. And there is the gardener, Jordan. Or as Casey immediately notes, the gorgeous gardener. There is a tug of attraction from the first.

I suppose what makes Flirting with Pete women’s fiction rather than romance is the fact that the love story is not at the center. Yes, there is a most satisfying romance, but the book is really about Casey and her quests: to understand her father, to uncover the mystery of Jenny, to deal with the gradual decline of her mother, and to bring closure to the past so that she can move into the future.

Flirting with Pete is a poignant story in all its aspects. Delinsky skillfully interweaves Jenny’s tale with Casey’s and brings all of the threads together at the end with a couple of surprising twists.

Flirting with Pete is the perfect book for romance readers who are looking for something a bit different from the usual. Delinsky may have departed from the increasingly rigid conventions of romance, but she has succeeded in writing a romantic story nonetheless. She writes my kind of “women’s fiction.”

--Jean Mason

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