What You Wish For by Fern Michaels
(Kensington, $24.00, PG) ISBN 1-57566-573-5
I know Fern Michaels has a huge readership and I am probably in the minority in never having read one of her books before. On the other hand, I come to this review with a clean slate, so my assessment of What You Wish For is based only on how it compares to other books in the genre, not on any pre-conceived notion I have of Michaelsí writing.

What You Wish For has all the elements of a taut romantic suspense and it grips the reader from the first page with a harrowing opening scene. Helen Ward is waiting for the return of her abusive husband, Daniel, and from the moment she hears his car entering the driveway, she knows that heís in a rage and that the evening is going to be a bad one. In fact, itís so bad that she barely escapes with her life. The event that finally impels Helen to fight back is Danielís attack of her beloved dog, Lucie. Alone in her violent, isolated world, Lucie has become Helenís one and only source of comfort. Where she tolerated abuse on her own behalf, she snaps when Daniel attacks her little dog.

The rest of the story is about Helenís long path to recovery and to building a new life for herself and Lucie. Through Helen, Michaels shows us the painful world of shelters and subterfuge that many women must face to escape violent men. Itís a frightening world of secrets and new identities and it takes all of Helenís determination to survive in it.

After her initial shock has passed, Helen emerges from her state of numbness and establishes her new identity, living in a new community under an assumed name. Slowly, she begins to explore her long-suppressed dreams for the future and to strive for what she wants out of life. With courage, tenacity and hard work, she begins to build a new life and a new business. And just when things are going so well, they get even better when she meets a man whose dog falls in love with her Lucie. Not long after, Helen and Sam Tolliver go the way of their pets and fall in love too.

However, Helen still lives in fear of Danielís return. Heís a brilliant psychopath who knows all there is to know about computers and tracing people. Helen knows she can never be truly happy with Sam until she can confront her fear of Daniel. The more she accomplishes under her assumed identity, the more she longs to reestablish herself with her own name, Helen Stanley, the woman she was before she met Daniel and let him ruin her life.

What You Wish For tackles a pretty heavy issue and Michaels explores the psychology of abused women and the hurdles they must face. In Helen, we have a likeable, inspiring heroine. Sam is everything Daniel is not, heís gentle, funny and supportive. The story of their long road to happiness is filled with tension and inspiration. All the elements for a great read seem to be there, so what turned this book into a three-heart instead of a four or five-heart read?

Spousal abuse is a serious issue. Michaels often does a fine job of drawing us into this complex and terrifying world. However, she lessens the power of Helenís story by crossing the line into sentimentality on too many occasions. The strength of the book is the complex and multi-dimensional characterization of Helen, but the supporting characters are often one-dimensional in comparison. Maybe this wonít bother some readers as much as it bothered me. This is, after all, Helenís story and that may be what readers care most about. But without depth and texture in the hero and secondary characters, it seems that Helenís world is somehow diminished. Daniel is too easy to hate, Sam is too easy to love and the world is a little too black and white.

I suspect that my dissatisfaction will not deter staunch Fern Michaels fans. For those who enjoy an inspirational story about triumph over adversity and beating the odds, you will not be disappointed and Michaelsí latest is probably exactly what you wish for.

--Tina Nigro

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