Holding Out by Anne O. Faulk
(Pocket, $7.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-671-01733-0
Holding Out is an extremely difficult book to rate. If I consulted with a panel of judges, each of whom had her own area of expertise, the plot judge would give it a 5, the character judge would give it a 3, the style judge would give it a 3 and the racial harmony judge would give it a 1.

So let's start with Judge #1, and the good news. The plot is, in a word, hysterical. You probably have never read anything like it. When Lawrence Underwood, a Supreme Court Justice who is a known wife abuser, is cleared of any involvement in his wife's suicide, the women of America become mad as hell. And one woman in particular isn't going to take it anymore. Lauren Fontaine, tough-as-nails financial wizard and single mother, boards a crowded train in her hometown of Atlanta. She's headed towards Washington D.C. to participate in a protest march. During the trip, she runs into an old friend who associates with many of the nation's most influential feminists. Invited to a strategy session, Lauren suggests an idea based on an ancient Greek comedy. In Lysistrata, the women of Athens refused to have sex with their husbands until the men ended the Peloponnesian War. Two thousand years later, Lauren Fontaine proposes that the women of America take the same stand -- no sex until Lawrence Underwood receives his due punishment.

Lauren is surprised when the coalition of feminists not only agree to her plan, but make her the movement's spokeswoman. She has no idea what she has started -- how many women will agree to "hold out" -- and how the backlash against her idea will affect her family, her job and her burgeoning love life.

This is where Judge #2 weighs in on the characters. Lauren is one tough, funny and raunchy chick. As she is described in Newsweek, "She's Scarlett O'Hara with a social conscience, a sense of humor and a designer wardrobe." Or, as Lauren herself puts it,

I'm the debutante with the sawed-off shotgun, the librarian who'll knee you in the crotch if you put your hand on my ass on a crowded subway, the country club matron with a switchblabe in my Judith Leiber bag. I am the symbol for the fact that women are not going to be conciliatory anymore. I'm the Stokely Carmichael of the female sex.

Well, okay, she's not really modest either. I admired Lauren's courage and her loyalty to her son throughout the novel, but I'm not sure I liked her. She is such an overpowering character that the secondary characters pale beside her. This includes Jake Ward, a sexy journalist hunk. With exquisite bad timing, Lauren realizes he is her soul mate on the eve of the strike. They can't make love, but in one memorable scene Jake describes in detail exactly what he is going to do to Lauren when the strike is over, and boy, aural sex can be very effective.

Judge #3 notes that this debut novel contains some snappy writing. It combines political satire with financial thriller (Lauren's professional skill and daring plays a major role in the plot) but at 500 pages it's about 100 pages too long. The author satirizes organized feminism at the same time that she celebrates genuine sisterhood. Lauren begins the novel acknowledging that she is more comfortable with men than with women, but by its conclusion she realizes that "at the end of the day, it's women who'll save your ass."

Our racial harmony judge is very concerned that the novel leans dangerously close to being racist at times. Two of the three major black characters are Lauren's housekeeper and her best friend's bodyguard. While Lauren and her friends are filthy rich, the one black feminist involved in the protest is a minister from a low-income neighborhood. They are all sympathetic characters, but they pander to age-old racial stereotypes. I don't want to seem too politically correct, but couldn't one of Lauren's stockbroker coworkers have been black? Couldn't one of the servants have been white?

This is one of those reviews in which a 3-heart rating doesn't accurately reflect the fascinating premise and the wildly uneven and possibly offensive execution. You'll have to decide if the plot interests you enough that you can overlook the novel's shortcomings. One thing is for sure -- I can't imagine what Ms. Faulk will do for an encore.

--Susan Scribner

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