Husband, Lover, Stranger
by Suzanne Forster
(Berkley, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-16185-4
***
Suzanne Forster successfully creates and builds suspense throughout Husband, Lover, Stranger. If psychological mysteries appeal to you, this may be up your alley, but as a romance the novel falls short.

Sophie Weston has finally made a new life for herself five years after the disappearance and presumed death of her husband Jay. She is engaged to marry Claude, the therapist who helped her recover from the heartbreak of losing the man she loved yet never quite trusted. A childhood victim of abuse and neglect, she has turned her insecurities around by running a small day care center, where she can lavish the love on disadvantaged children that she never received.

She is shocked when he former mother-in-law makes an amazing announcement at Sophie's engagement party. Jay is alive and coming home, after spending years in a foreign prison on trumped-up drug charges. Sophie is ambivalent about the reunion. Her relationship with Jay had been an all-consuming love and she almost lost herself in it. Jay's wild nature led him to disappear frequently and she never could quite trust that he loved her in return. Now that Jay is back, can she remain the strong, independent person she became during his absence? Can she risk her heart to love him again?

And then things get more confusing, and possibly even deadly. The man she is reunited with looks like Jay, and he remembers their past together, including plenty of intimate details. But there are a few inconsistencies suddenly he eats with a different hand and his personality is subtly different. Before his disappearance, Jay often took Sophie for granted, but now he is positively obsessed with her and desperate for her to make their marriage real again. Then it appears that someone is trying to scare or hurt Sophie, and all clues point to her own husband. Or is this man really her husband?

This is one of those books that you absolutely, positively cannot cheat on and read ahead, or you'll spoil the entire experience. Ms. Forster kept me turning pages as the mystery of Jay's identity unfolded. I never was quite sure if he was really Sophie's husband or an imposter until the very end, and the explanation was a shocker. I'm not sure I still understand all of its convoluted ramifications.

Sophie is a fairly strong heroine. I admired her courage in crafting a life for herself after her history of neglect and insecurity. Her affection for her beloved preschoolers, who know her as "Soapy," is endearing.

The problem for me was Jay, and his relationship with Sophie. He is portrayed as a man obsessed with his wife, a man who wants her so badly his behavior borders on stalking. If you get off on pure passion, you might appreciate him. But I never felt that his relationship with Sophie was built on love. They have a definite communication problem. I thought it was strange that the reunion between the two of them occurs at a cocktail party in front of a hundred guests, not in private. And then Jay tries to win back Sophie by taking her to a monastery and an amusement park lots of exciting experiences! but they never discuss the doubts, the fears, the insecurities that they are feeling. It was hard to believe that the two really ever loved each other, although it was obvious they had a healthy respect for each other's bodies.

The frequently overblown writing style also kept me at a distance from the characters, as did an annoying tendency to focus on Sophie's weight. I thought we had seen the last of novels in which the heroine believes she needs to lose five pounds in order to be attractive to her lover.

Once you start Husband, Lover, Stranger, you may be hooked as I was, intellectually trying to outguess the author about whether Jay is the real thing, a doppelganger, a long-lost twin, a clone or just a damn good actor. But I doubt you will feel much of an emotional charge when you reach the happily ever after.

--Susan Scribner


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