The Wilder Sisters by Jo-Ann Mapson
(Harper, $24.00, PG) ISBN 0-06-019116-3
***
Despite the name, this novel isn't wild. In fact, it moved a little too slowly for my taste. I recommend it only to readers who appreciate colorful settings and leisurely-paced character studies.

Set primarily in the small New Mexico town of Floralee, the titular sisters are Rose and Lily. Rose's husband died two years ago, and she now lives alone except for her dog. Both of her children are vagabonds her son travels the motorcycle racing circuit and her daughter drifts cross-country with her musician boyfriend. Rose works as a bookkeeper for the town's veterinarian, Austin Donavan. Although she knows the attractive vet is still pining for his adulterous ex-wife, Rose finds herself falling in love with the man she has worked beside for years.

Lily Wilder left New Mexico years ago and is now a highly successful medical sales representative based in southern California. She and Rose have not spoken in five years, ever since Lily had a major lapse in judgement (she sent a stripper to Rose's son's high school graduation party). Realizing that her latest affair is as meaningless as the numerous others before it, Lily packs up her loyal dog and heads to her parents' ranch in Floralee. She arrives in time to encounter an old but not forgotten boyfriend, the ranch's ailing foreman and her troubled sister.

The Wilder Sisters features a wealth of southwestern flavor and has a very strong sense of place. Mapson devotes careful attention to the region's horses, architecture, food, and mix of Spanish and Indian culture. There's no doubting her affection for the region. Or for both sisters' dogs.

Her human characters are more problematic. Rose comes across as a doormat. It's hard to understand what she sees in the alcoholic, faithless Austin, and her passivity towards her children's estrangement is disturbing as well. Lily has much more spine, albeit a less generous heart. She delivers the best lines in the novel, demonstrating Mapson's occasional use of gentle humor. And she's smart enough to appreciate the beauty of Lyle Lovett:

Just by looking at the CD covers, Lily could tell Lyle would kill in bed. He would positively shred. He possessed all the attributes Lily felt essential to a lover: he was skinny, indicating agility. Forget muscle-bound hulks; thin guys had stamina. His lyrics were laconic, which meant he conserved his energy, plus they were intelligent, which meant that after incredibly great sex, if he was able to talk, he'd have something to say. And the way he sang his voice burned through her speaker as if he were holding back a passion as powerful as a draft horse's. Oh Julia, Lily thought. You dumb little rich starlet. You didn't know what you had when it lay right there in your bed.

The reconciliation between the sisters is gradual and the road to a better relationship is bumpy. Each sister has good reason to appreciate the other's personality traits by the end of the novel. Both Wilders make changes in their personal and professional lives. The question is, will the reader still care by that point? The story doesn't really take off until page 300, when a major character dies and Rose finally gives Austin hell for treating her like dirt.

Jo-Ann Mapson is the author of four other novels. As it took me almost two weeks to read this one, I'm in no hurry to hunt down the others. I don't mind subtlety, but the charms of this slow-paced novel almost completely eluded me.

--Susan Scribner


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