Sweethearts of the Twilight Lanes
by Luanne Jones
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-380-81613-X
Sweethearts of the Twilight Lanes has its heart in the right place. However, too many other elements in the debut contemporary novel by Luanne Jones have been misplaced for the book to be a recommended read. The likeable main characters and colorful setting are almost cancelled out by awkward plotting and dialogue.

That's not to say that Luanne Jones doesn't have a talent for concocting memorable lines. For instance, we meet the bad boy hero on page 16, as he muses about his shortcomings: Flynn was dirt. No, no, too easy on himself. He was the stuff dirt pointed to when it wanted to lift its self-esteem and say, "Yeah, I may be dirt, but at least I'm not Flynn Garvey." Cute, and to the point.

Flynn and control freak Tess Redding had a brief, doomed fling fourteen years ago, but after Tess' disastrous college graduation night, Flynn disappeared from their small Georgia hometown. Word is that he's actually made something of himself since then, creating an organization dedicated to tracking down and collecting child support from errant fathers. But Flynn hasn't quite come to terms with his own past yet. He is determined to force a confrontation with the rich businessman who sired him but still won't acknowledge him. Unfortunately, that happens to be the very same businessman who is the key to Tess' professional future.

Although Tess was also raised in a dysfunctional family, she was taught to keep up appearances, and her chosen profession does that in spades. As the editor of Simply Southern magazine, she maintains the fašade and writes all about genteel living. The magazine's success has led her to consider moving its operations to Atlanta; hence the need for an infusion of cash from the rich businessman.

Flynn's recent return coincides with the delivery of nasty blackmail notes to Tess and three her best friends. To protect her friends, Tess reluctantly enlists Flynn's help. She also rediscovers the friendship that made the "SuiteHearts" such a force to be reckoned with when they were all college roommates. But will her tentative reconciliation with Flynn, and the friendships with her fellow SuiteHearts survive the secrets that date back to that fateful graduation night? Does Flynn really want Tess or does he just need her to hook him up with his own deadbeat dad?

There's a lot going on in this novel, perhaps too much for its 375 pages. Sometimes it seems as if several chapters were edited out of the manuscript. For example, Tess and Flynn's youthful romance is briefly alluded to at several points, but the reader never really finds out how they met, why they broke up and what attracted them to each other in the first place. The gradual unveiling of the characters' secrets make for some interesting and humorous misadventures, but they also keep the reader in the dark for too long.

Independently, Tess and Flynn are both decent characters. It's refreshing to encounter an ambitious, non-ditzy heroine. Tess is often referred to as "Queen" by her friends, with a combination of affection and frustration over her refusal to let anyone else take charge. By the end of the book, she has mellowed but is not humbled. Flynn is a strong hero who finally moves beyond his childhood wounds with the help of several good friends. I give Luanne Jones credit for showing that the love of a good woman alone can't save a man - he needs support of other people in his life as well.

Too bad the romance between Tess and Flynn is so frustrating. The two of them banter so self-consciously that my head was spinning most of the time they were together. There's very little genuine interaction, just lots of sparring and wisecracking, until the very end of the novel. I may have had a good sense of who Tess and Flynn were separately, but together I didn't have a clue.

Tess' friendship with the SuiteHearts doesn't measure up to legendary Southern girl sisterhoods such as the Ya-Ya's or the Sweet Potato Queens. The reader just doesn't know enough about the other three women for them to make much of an impression, other than general Southern sauciness. Thus the juxtaposition of the refined SuiteHearts and the down-home grittiness of the local bowling alley doesn't come off as humorous as it should - we don't know them well enough to understand why they don't belong there.

Sweethearts of the Twilight Lanes is strongest in its last 50 pages, when Tess and Flynn finally start conversing like two genuine human beings and everybody's assorted secrets are revealed in a rousing finish at the bowling alley. Both humor and compassion abound at the finale. Luanne Jones shows a great deal of promise. If she can tighten up her plotting and tone down the too-clever repartee, she will have a good shot at a being a successful contemporary romance novelist.

--Susan Scribner

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