As Trisha Alexander:

A Mother for Jeffrey

Wedding Bells & Mistletoe

With This Wedding Ring

The Wrong Child by Patricia Kay
(Berkley, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-425-17770-X
The Wrong Child is a promising mainstream contemporary debut from category author Trisha Alexander. Her writing is occasionally wordy, and the romance between the hero and heroine doesn't generate much heat, but her insightful portrayal of characters faced with a no-win situation is right on target.

Instead of the cliched Secret Baby plot, The Wrong Child deals with a story "ripped from today's headlines" - Switched-at-Birth Babies. Quiet divorcee Abbie Bernard has recently returned to her hometown of Houston so her vivacious 11-year old daughter, Kendall, can have the stimulating urban environment she craves. Unfortunately, her return means that Abbie is now in close proximity to her overbearing mother, Katherine, but Abbie feels that she is mature enough to defend herself against Katherine's frequent put-downs.

Kendall has been uncharacteristically quiet lately, so Abbie brings her to the doctor for blood tests. There is good news: Kendall is only anemic, nothing more serious. But the bad news is far more catastrophic: blood typing indicates that there is no way for Kendall to be Abbie's own biological child. Once she recovers from her initial shock, Abbie, a researcher and fact-checker by profession, investigates and discovers that the night Kendall was born, the local hospital was short-staffed due to a blizzard. The only other baby girl born at the same time must be Abbie's biological daughter, and the two babies must have been mistakenly switched.

Abbie's search for answers leads her to handsome widower Logan O'Connell. His daughter, Erin, is quiet and fair, a far cry from Logan and his son Patrick's dark looks and outgoing personality. Once Abbie convinces Logan of the awful truth, it's only a short leap to the inevitable Marriage of Convenience, with predictable complications and upheavals.

The Wrong Child walks a fine line, but manages to avoid melodrama for most of its length. Instead, it focuses on the realistic reactions that two decent people, their children and other family members, would have to such a life-altering discovery. Because Abbie's ex-husband refuses to communicate with his former family, Kendall desperately needs a father, and connects with Logan without reservations. But Erin misses her late mother, and has a strong negative reaction to the situation. There are other obstacles as well. Abbie's mother, Katherine, constantly questions Abbie's judgment. Logan's sister-in-law, Elizabeth, has her eye on Logan and doesn't mind milking Erin's unhappiness to drive a wedge between the tentative newlyweds.

The story encourages the reader to think about the ageless nature vs. nurture debate. True, Kendall takes after Logan's family in looks and temperament. But Katherine insists that her granddaughter is the very image of a family ancestor, despite the reality that Kendall doesn't have any biological ties to that family. And although Katherine and Abbie are biological mother and daughter, they are extremely different, leading Katherine to despair of Abbie ever measuring up to her standards.

At times the author layers on too many secondary characters, and her descriptions of home decor and clothing are unnecessarily tedious. While the initial reactions among those affected by the dilemma ring true, the romance between Abbie and Logan seems forced into the story to please romance readers. I would have been happy if they had just remained good friends.

The bottom line, however, is that The Wrong Child was the right novel to cheer me out of my book doldrums. Berkley will publish the next Patricia Kay contemporary in summer 2001; I'll be eager to read her follow-up to this auspicious beginning. Meanwhile, I can only hope that the category publishers don't get any bright ideas about replacing Secret Babies with Switched-at-Birth Babies as the next plot-du-jour.

--Susan Scribner

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