Harper’s Moon by Suzanne Judson
(Berkley, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-17542-1
An oft-debated topic is the difference between women’s fiction and romance. I must admit that I have never seen this distinction adequately explained, especially with books that have a strong romantic element. Thus, I find myself puzzling as I try to characterize Suzanne Judson’s July release. Is it romance or is it women’s fiction. I lean toward the latter categorization, but who cares? Harper’s Moon is an engrossing story of a woman’s triumph over an abusive marriage and her rediscovery of both herself and her ability to love.

Annabel Mahoney would seem to have the perfect life. She has a penthouse apartment in Manhattan, a closet full of designer clothes, and all the trappings of her husband’s success. She also has enjoyed a certain degree of success as a fabric artist; her beautiful quilts sell for big bucks. But it is all a facade. For four of the seven years of their marriage, her husband Tom has been beating her. Before that, he merely tried to control her life.

Annie is a classic battered wife. Her husband controls the finances, has isolated her from her friends, and has almost convinced her that if she just does everything right, well then there would be no need for any chastisement. And he often apologizes and sends flowers and promises that it will never happen again. However, after a particularly vicious assault, Annie realizes that she must flee to save her life and her sanity. Almost unconsciously, she has already planned her escape.

Annie heads south and twenty-six hours later, her car breaks down in the small town of Burnsville, North Carolina. Annie decides that perhaps this is a sign. When she is able to rent a small country cottage for a reasonable rent, she decides to stay in Burnsville.

A city girl, Annie has some trouble adjusting to small town life with its inherent neighborliness and friendliness. Almost unwillingly, she is drawn into the town’s society. When her chimney needs cleaning, Meg, the owner of the local eatery, suggests that her nearest neighbor, “young Jed,” can help out. “Young Jed” turns out to be a forty-year old hunk.

Jed Harper is the local boy made good. He had grown up dirt poor, but has become a highly successful travel writer, with six best sellers and a Pulitzer Prize behind him. His pattern is to immerse himself in his latest adventure and then return to Burnsville to finish the book. He’s a traveling man who doesn’t believe in settling down.

Jed is immediately attracted to his fragile but lovely neighbor. He realizes that she is running away from something and soon figures out what has happened to her. Annie arouses protective instincts he didn’t realize he had. She also arouses him in other ways. And gradually, Jed gains first Annie’s trust and then her love.

The reason I tend to view Harper’s Moon as “women’s fiction” is because a substantial part of the book charts Tom Mahoney’s behavior and his gradual disintegration. Tom skirts being a caricature of a battering spouse. I suppose Judson felt she had to make him so unpleasant to justify Annie’s love affair with Jed. Still, the author makes us understand Tom’s motives and his actions, even if we feel absolutely no sympathy whatsoever for him.

Judson provides a nice secondary romance between Meg and one of Jed’s author friends. She offers a picture of small town life which is almost Edenic, although there is a snake in the garden. But mostly,Harper’s Moon is about the healing power of love. Annie rediscovers the self she lost in her horrible marriage and discovers what love truly is.

We all know that most women fleeing from an abusive marriage do not end up in a friendly small town and do not have a handsome, kind, gentle, sexy best-selling author come to their rescue. So maybe Harper’s Moon is really a romance, when all is said and done. However we characterize this book, it is an enjoyable story.

--Jean Mason

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