The Ladies Farm by Viqui Litman
(Crown, $23, G) ISBN 0-609-60380-9
***
I picked up The Ladies Farm shortly after finishing Lorna Landvik's delightful Patty Jane's House of Curl, looking for a similar story of female bonding. However, what I found was darker, edgier and not as enjoyable. The novel is still a promising debut, despite its shortcomings. Be sure to have plenty of hankies by your side if you read it.

Della Brewer's quiet Sunday is ruined when Barbara Morrison arrives at The Ladies Farm in Sydonia, Texas. This former bed-and-breakfast is now a women's retreat, complete with beauty salon, crafts classes and other activities. Della is dismayed to see her ex-lover's widow drive up in her bright red Thunderbird. What could the wealthy, smug Barbara possibly want at The Ladies Farm?

Surprisingly, Barbara has come for an indefinite stay, and her arrival sets off a chain of event that changes The Ladies Farm forever. Rita, the kooky hairdresser, is the least affected by Barbara. But Kat, the efficient business manager; Pauline, the nurturing earth mother; and Della are all thrown for a loop. Barbara's presence causes long-hidden secrets to emerge. Barbara's husband, Richard, had a close relationship with more than one woman at the Ladies Farm before his death. When the truth starts to come out, the very future of the women's sanctuary is suddenly placed in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Barbara has her own reasons for wanting to take up residence at the Farm, which she is willing to reveal only when she's good and ready.

To first-time author Viqui Litman's credit, the novel is extremely well plotted. The various threads of the plot tangle together in surprising ways and then come together in an emotional climax. She deftly combines humor and drama, often in the same scene. She also creates a strong sense of place in Sydonia, Texas and the Farm.

But The Ladies Farm didn't quite gel for me because of the discordant relationships among the characters. I was looking for sisterhood but found antipathy and hostility. Instead of female bonding, I found women fighting over a man who has been dead for more than a year. Granted, they do manage to overcome their initial reactions and work together when the Farm is threatened. And the brittle, cynical Della does come to value the gifts that Barbara offers before it is too late. But there is too much initial bitchiness and not enough nurturing.

A few minor points annoyed me as well. Does every hairdresser in modern fiction have to be ditzy and colorful? Are there any hairdressers out there who object to this stereotyping? And this is the second book I have read recently that featured an aging Baby Boomer who is confronted with a greedy Generation X offspring. Speaking as a woman on the cusp between the two generations, I find this offensive. If this is a trend in modern fiction, I don't want any part of it.

Viqui Litman has enough natural talent that I will consider reading her next novel, although I won't be first in line to buy it. If you're looking for women's fiction that makes you laugh and cry, you could do worse than The Ladies Farm. But if you're looking for the next Patty Jane, this ain't it.

--Susan Scriber


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