Starting From Square Two
by Caren Lissner
(Red Dress Ink, $12.95, PG) ISBN 0-373-25052-5
***
Caren Lissner’s second book, about a young widow’s return to dating, is engaging and readable with nicely drawn characters. It’s also a surprisingly light, easy read, given the subject matter. Perhaps this unwillingness to dig beyond the surface is why it also feels, ultimately, a little pat.

Gert Healey, at 29, has been a widow for a year and a half. She was very happily married to Marc, her college sweetheart, right up until his death in a car accident and she still misses him badly. Gert’s friends, Hallie and Erika, think it’s time Gert got ‘out there’ again – mostly, apparently, because misery loves company.

Hallie and Erika are two different versions of the cynical single city girl, claiming they only want to settle down with a nice, normal guy, but dismissing the nice, normal guys they meet as boring.

Hallie tends to hold men up to impossible standards, dumping them when they don’t live up to her expectations. Erika broke up with her long-time boyfriend because she “didn’t feel hopelessly, madly in love with Ben, the way she’d always dreamed she’d be.” After they broke up, Ben met someone else and is apparently happily married and a father. Erika is now maliciously harassing Ben’s wife via the Internet for ‘stealing’ her life.

Gert goes to a bar with Hallie and Erika, thinking she’ll simply go through the motions and go home. To her friends’ consternation, Gert, who has a much more tolerant attitude towards men, meets a nice, normal guy – Todd – who asks if he can call her. Gert is bemused, but willing to give Todd a chance in spite of her friends’ dire predictions.

Gert also receives an invitation to the wedding of Marc’s younger brother, Michael. This forces Gert to struggle with what, if any, role she can have with Marc’s family.

Ms. Lissner is respectful of Gert’s situation without delving too deeply into it. Gert’s state of mind and emotions feel real, and I never doubted for a moment that she grieved honestly for a man she both loved and liked. Having said that, I also felt a bit as though we were observing her through gauze, put up to protect the reader from having to experience anything too raw or too painful.

Gert struggles to reconcile her growing feelings for Todd with her enduring feelings for Marc, but it is a gentle struggle, made easier by the fact that Todd is a sensitive considerate person. I’m willing to believe that Gert deserved a break, but it does seem a little simplistic that she would slide so easily into a loving new relationship with the first guy she dated.

Gert’s relationship with Hallie and Erika has as much focus in the book as her relationship with Todd, and is more problematic. Although they claim to want only her happiness, jealousy and resentment sneak through – after all, she’s already had one happy relationship and it looks as though she’s just going to fall into another one. She thinks they’re bitter and self-absorbed (which they are) and they think she’s complacent and self-righteous (which she is). Where Todd sometimes feels a little too good to be true, the women all feel like real people, even when you don’t particularly like them.

While it is not always easy to understand why Gert, Hallie and Erika remain friends (certainly they’re not always good for one another), there is a pleasing sense that they all need each other and that things will even out in the end. Their relationship feels honest, if, like Gert’s relationship with Todd, a little superficial.

There’s also the fact that the dark aspects of the subject matter are sometimes in contrast with the book’s lightness of tone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – I didn’t mind the slight ambiguity – but there were times when the disparity left me feeling unsatisfied.

In fact, I suspect I enjoyed the book as much as I did for exactly the same reason I felt a bit shortchanged – I was interested in the characters and simply wanted more depth.

-- Judi McKee


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