Acts of Love

 
A Certain Smile by Judith Michael
(Crown, $25, PG) ISBN 0-517-70325-4
**
The latest effort from husband and wife writing team Judith Michael could have earned four hearts, but it lost two full hearts because of an unnecessarily downbeat ending. I read their glitzy, overblown stories because they offer me an escapist fantasy. I don't need the reminder that real life can come crashing down on the most promising romance. The authors, frankly, have betrayed their core audience. They are going to lose their loyal readers in a misguided bid for respectability (keep in mind we live in an irrational society where "respectable" literature usually means something depressing and difficult to comprehend).

The story takes place during 10 days of the life of Miranda Graham, a sheltered, timid dress designer from Colorado. She has traveled to China to meet with representatives of the factory that will produce clothing for her company. When she arrives at the Beijing airport, Miranda is overwhelmed by the chaos, but unexpectedly, a Chinese man secures a taxi for her and accompanies her to her hotel. Her rescuer is Yuan Li, the son of a Chinese mother and an American serviceman. He offers to help Miranda during her visit, and although she is initially wary of his motives, she reluctantly accepts his assistance.

Friendship quickly flourishes, followed by attraction and then love. But Li's family and work problems threaten their brief idyll. His son, Yuan Sheng, dabbles in several businesses with corrupt men who use the Chinese government's tacit acceptance of illegal behaviors to get ahead financially. Now his partners want Sheng to gain control of Li's construction business by betraying him to the government's security agency. Li and Sheng have never been close, and Sheng's loyalty to Li is tenuous at best.

Meanwhile, Miranda is confronted with an entirely different culture where people don't react as she expects them to. She must learn to break out of her shell and be assertive but respectful with the factory representatives and other Chinese she encounters.

Despite these challenges, Li and Miranda try to spend as much time together as possible until Miranda has to leave. All too soon, they are forced to make a decision about their future together.

A Certain Smile is a dense, somewhat slow-moving but frequently fascinating look at modern China. It is a land of many contrasts and of rapidly changing political and economic realities. The Chinese have learned to live with a government that openly spies on its own people and yet turns a blind eye to illegal activities. Power and money are the ultimate goal for a country whose people have lived in extreme poverty and deprivation for centuries.

As always with this writing duo, the reader has to wade through some pretty hackneyed, cliched prose.

Miranda and Li turned to each other, clung to each other. Li kissed her eyelids, her closed eyes, the tip of her nose, her lips. "I love you," he said, and Miranda put her head back to look at him fully. "I love you," she said. "And want," he added with a faint smile. "And want," she echoed. "Oh, yes, I want you, always, always."

But somehow a Judith Michael book usually transcends this and somehow ends up being more than the sum of its parts. A Judith Michael book is usually lovable in its unapologetic corny-ness, its enthusiastic romanticism. But it has to end happily or else the spell is broken and the weaknesses become too obvious. The ending of A Certain Smile is too abrupt, too downbeat and totally unnecessary. I don't know what possessed the authors to throw that curve ball, unless they are thinking "sequel," in which case I feel even more manipulated.

Another minor inconsistency irritated me. Miranda is 40 years old. Li's age is never directly addressed, but he does tell Miranda that his son Sheng is 35. That means that Li must be at least in his mid-fifties, probably 15 years older than Miranda. Yet nothing is mentioned of the age difference or of the fact that Miranda is closer in age to Sheng than to Li. In order for his difficult past to have the correct historical context, Li must be this age, but the authors conveniently forget about that detail as it pertains to the romance. Convenient for them, annoying for the reader.

Those readers who want an interesting description of modern China can read a non-fiction text, while those who want a happily-ever-after story can read a different romance. That leaves us with the question of who will want to read A Certain Smile. I don't really know, but I do know that I can't recommend it to TRR readers or even to die-hard Judith Michael fans.

--Susan Scribner


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