The Gazebo
& The Conservatory
by Emily Grayson
(Avon, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-380-73320-X
(William Morrow, $20, PG) ISBN 0-688-17439-6
Both of these books, by newcomer Emily Grayson, are similar to beautifully wrapped but ultimately empty boxes. Both feature attractive, soft-focus covers and rather exorbitant price tags for books that weigh in at a scarce 200 pages (and small pages at that - they're roughly the size of a 5X7 index card). Both are pointedly compared in the book jacket blurbs to those dubious landmarks of popular romantic literature, The Bridges of Madison County and The Notebook (okay, I once gave The Notebook 4 hearts, but I still feel guilty about it). And both are no more satisfying than your average category romance. Actually, I've read many categories that were more enjoyable and substantive.

The Gazebo opens with a Nicholas Sparks-like framing device. Abby Reston, editor of a small town newspaper, is approached by Martin Rayfiel, an elderly gentleman. Martin wants Abby to write a feature story about the great love between himself and Claire Swift. Although they are not married to each other, Martin and Claire have met once a year for the past 50 years at the town's gazebo. Former New Yorker Abby dismisses Martin's sentimental tale as being unworthy of her journalistic talents, but then she relents and decides to observe the couple the next day at their slated rendezvous. Neither Martin nor Claire show up, but Abby finds a briefcase filled with mementos and Martin's taped narrative of the story.

The great love affair turns out to be a cliched poor girl/rich boy romance, opposed by both sets of parents, that is briefly fulfilled but later frustrated by outside factors. Unfortunately, the narration keeps both Martin and Claire at a distance from the reader. Although we're told that Martin and Claire fall in love at first sight as teenagers, the emotion is never felt. Years pass, people get older, the inevitable happens, and Abby, listening to the tapes, understands why the 51st reunion will never take place. There are a few interesting moments at the end, as Abby reflects on the choices that Martin and Claire made, as well as on the fact that even a small-town housewife like Claire could have hidden passions and secrets. But because Martin and Claire's characters are woefully underdeveloped, the entire love story falls flat.

Grayson switches to a first-person narrative and a more melodramatic plot in The Observatory. Twin sisters Harper and Liz Mallory have never been close. Harper, the dramatic twin, left their small hometown (the same town featured in The Gazebo) and became a famous, wealthy artist. Meanwhile Liz, the quiet twin, stayed in her parents' house and became the town librarian. But when Harper's young daughter dies in a freak accident, Liz takes up temporary residence in Harper's house to care for her son Nick, while Harper flees to a remote Florida island to overcome her grief.

Liz finds herself involved in a whirlwind romance with David Fields, a teacher with a lifelong passion for astronomy who actually lives in an observatory. The emotion is intense, but Liz wonders if David could really care for her plain, quiet self. Then Harper's reappearance uncovers a secret, and Liz flees back to her small town home. Will she settle down with the nice but dull guy who is courting her there? Can she forget the brief but intense passion she felt with David? Will she and Harper ever be close?

I did feel some emotion about this story -- primarily annoyance with Liz and Harper for treating seven-year old Nick like dirt. First his mother takes off, and his aunt Liz promises she'll take care of him. But, next thing you know, she's leaving him with the housekeeper while she arranges liaisons with David. Finally, she abandons him again when things with David don't work out. The selfish behavior of both Mallory women made me want to shake them (and worry about Nick's future therapy bills). Liz's self-centered and frequently self-pitying behavior severely limited my interest in whether she and David lived happily ever after or not.

I've encountered worse novels than The Gazebo and The Observatory. Emily Grayson is a competent, thoughtful writer. Both novels can easily be read, and then forgotten, in an hour. Do publishers really believe that women are so hungry for romance that anything in a pretty package will suffice? I'm afraid I already know the answer to that, but it's up to us savvy romance readers to prove them wrong.

--Susan Scribner

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