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Just the Way You Are
by Barbara Freethy
(Avon, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-380-81552-4
I've read numerous "first love" romances in which the hero and heroine, reunited after years apart, realize that they are still perfect soul mates. Frankly, I don't get it. If I had married my first boyfriend, disaster would have ensued, not happily-ever-after. So it's refreshing to read a romance that acknowledges that people actually change over the years, and that the boy you fell in love with as a teenager isn't necessarily the one you're meant to be with as an adult.

Unfortunately, Barbara Freethy chooses my least-favorite plot to illustrate this message - two sisters, in love with the same man. In Just the Way You Are, the two sisters are Alli and Tessa MacGuire. Raised by their grandparents after their parents died in a car crash, the sisters were once very close. Then Sam Tucker entered the picture when Tessa was 12 and Alli was 10. Tessa and Sam became instant soul mates, while Alli was the unwanted tagalong for the rest of their childhood. But Tessa was an aspiring fashion model with big dreams, and when she left for a modeling shoot in Aspen one Christmas, a heartbroken, drunken Sam fell into bed with a willing Alli. The result was a pregnancy, a quick marriage, and the severing of the bond between Alli and Tessa.

Nine years later, Alli is weary of trying to win Sam's love, and has told him she wants a divorce. When she gave Sam his freedom, she didn't know that a threat to her grandmother's health would bring Tessa back to their coastal Oregon town for the first time since that fateful Christmas. Now Sam and Tessa will resume where they left off...won't they? For some reason, things aren't as simple as they seem. Sam misses Alli more than he thought, and he doesn't feel the same connection with Tessa anymore. Tessa's photographer, Jimmy, appears in town and hints that he's tired of being her platonic pal. And Alli vacillates between wanting to let Sam go and fight for his love one more time.

I've always found the sisters-as-rivals plot distasteful, probably because I have a close relationship with my only sister and can't imagine fighting with her over a guy. But Barbara Freethy presents an intriguing and realistic love triangle that is less melodramatic than it sounds. Neither sister is blameless and there are no easy villains, just three people trying to sort out the mess they've made. It's easy to understand Tessa's feelings of betrayal, and a little harder, but not impossible, to understand Alli's behavior as well. Frankly, I never fully believed that Sam was worth destroying their relationship. Sure he was handsome, hardworking and a good father, but he was utterly clueless about giving Alli any emotional support during their marriage. And his decision about which sister was his true soul mate seemed obvious long before the befuddled guy put it all together.

While the love triangle smolders, some welcome sparks are provided by Jimmy, Tessa's photographer. I wanted to read more about his courtship of Tessa, and fantasized briefly that both women would fall in love with him instead of Sam. There's also a clever and poignant framing device provided by Phoebe, the girls' grandmother, who yearns to bring the family back together before it's too late.

Freethy is a strong storyteller with an unerring ear for dialogue. Despite my inherent distaste for the plot, I gobbled up the book faster than a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. I didn't always like the characters, but they sure seemed like real people to me; that's why Freethy is one of the best contemporary romance novelists in the business.

--Susan Scribner

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