Forever And Ever

Outlaw in Paradise

The Saving Graces

Wild at Heart

Circle of Three by Patricia Gaffney
(HarperCollins, $24.00, PG) ISBN 0-06-019375-1
Remember how wowed you were when you read Patricia Gaffney's hit from last year, The Saving Graces? Well, she's done it again with Circle of Three . Her departure from historical romances to mainstream women's fiction may upset readers who enjoy pure romance stories. However, readers who yearn for a great story, told with warmth, using beautiful prose and creating memorable, true to life characters, won't feel cheated.

As with The Saving Graces, Gaffney focuses on her female characters. This time it's a middle-aged woman, Carrie Van Allen, her teenaged daughter Ruth and her mother Dana. Told in first person in alternating chapters, Circle of Three explores complicated, often unfathomable mother/daughter relationships.

The story opens as Carrie tries to analyze her feelings about the recent death of her husband Stephen. Carrie, who deliberately started a fight with Stephen, saw him die from a heart attack while he was driving them home from dinner with her parents, a dinner he hadn't wanted to attend. As the months pass, Carrie sinks deeper and deeper into an abysmal void. Both her mother Dana and her daughter Ruth are concerned, and each tries to help.

What ultimately causes Carrie to awaken from her emotional stupor, the catalyst in all three women's lives, is Jess Deeping, the man who was Carrie's first lover when they were both teenagers. Carrie gave Jess up years before when she sensed her mother's deep disapproval of Jess. Now, twenty plus years later, Carrie's mom still disapproves. A wiser and more confident Carrie is trying to balance her desire for her family's approval versus her need for Jess. Ultimately Circle of Three comes full circle, with each woman viewing Jess with a new perspective.

Although their roles are not as prominent as is Carrie's, Gaffney has fleshed out Ruth, full of teenaged angst and understandable anger over the death of her father. Dana, nearly seventy, is amazed at how much she doesn't know. After all, doesn't older mean wiser? In a particularly poignant scene, Dana makes this thoughtful revelation as she follows a nightly ritual of studying the new lines on her neck.

"It's funny, but I'm getting more vain the older I get instead of less. No, vain isn't the right word. Aghast. That's it."

Through these characters, Gaffney effortlessly uses a magnifying glass to make us aware of emotions we rarely analyze, much less put into words.

A thread that runs through most of the book and adds texture deals with The Arkists, a benign religious group who wants to build a lifesize ark, complete with life-like animals. Carrie is asked to design and paint the animals, a task that is at once fascinating and gently humorous.

Jess, who's always loved Carrie, has a warm special relationship with her daughter Ruth, too. He's able to get Ruth to talk about her boyfriend, who is a rational person's nightmare. Jess also has his moments of eloquence. He's quietly but steadily Carrie's foundation.

Reading Circle of Three is a bit like taking a rambling, leisurely drive. You may not know where you're going or even know if you've arrived, but the trip has been extraordinary, gratifying and charming along the way.

Patricia Gaffney has given us three characters who are as real, as Americana, as fourth of July fireworks, donuts at Krispy Kreme and shopping at Wal-Mart. There's no taint of artifice, no hint of deception as Gaffney truthfully and accurately chronicles the lives of three typical yet unique women. Circle of Three should go on the top of your summer reading list.

-- Linda Mowery

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