Girl in the Mirror
by Mary Alice Monroe
(Mira, $5.99, PG) ISBN 1-55166-451-8
****

If you like your romance on the melodramatic side and don't mind a Big Misunderstanding and a whopping coincidence or two, you will enjoy Girl in the Mirror. It's a well-written tale featuring fully realized primary and secondary characters.

Charlotte Godowski has lived since birth with a facial deformity that has made her an object of ridicule and pity. Raised by her unmarried, immigrant mother, she endures a lonely existence as an accountant but dreams of an acting career. When her sleazy boss makes a pass at her (despite her facial appearance, she has a perfect body), she finally breaks free of her passivity and fights back. The threat of a sexual harassment lawsuit against the accounting firm nets her enough money to see a top-notch plastic surgeon who agrees to perform reconstructive surgery.

The result is a breathtakingly beautiful new woman who christens herself Charlotte Godfrey and leaves the chill of Chicago for sunny California to pursue her dream of becoming a star. Her mother, for mysterious reasons, opposes the surgery and disowns the new Charlotte. A letter of introduction from the plastic surgeon leads Charlotte to the door of Freddie Walen, a talent agent who is in desperate need of some real talent. Within months, Charlotte's beauty and acting skill are the toast of Hollywood.

Michael Mondragon is a Mexican-American architect who returns to California to help his father's failing plant nursery and lawn maintenance business. Michael has spent many years trying to break away from his Latin roots and establish himself as a successful American businessman, but he can't renounce family tradition. His agreement to stay in California for two years is met with resentment and jealousy by his older brother and sister. But then he meets Charlotte and everything else fades into the background.

Charlotte and Michael quickly fall in love but a possessive Freddie does everything he can to destroy their relationship. Charlotte agonizes over whether or not to tell Michael the truth about her appearance. And then she learns that her beauty may be only temporary. Suddenly the woman who has built a meteoric career on her looks must make difficult and possibly life-threatening choices.

Mary Alice Monroe, in her second novel, shows herself to be a strong writer with a talent for creating three-dimensional characters. She explores the dynamics of Michael's Latino family and the struggles they face to redefine their roles in a modern world. Michael's brother, Bobby, in particular faces a tremendous physical and emotional challenge.

Before you rush out and buy Girl in the Mirror, however, I have a few caveats:

    There's a whopping coincidence that leads to a plot twist you can see coming 300 pages before Charlotte realizes the truth. I'm not sure if the author intentionally let the cat out of the bag for the reader and left the heroine clueless, but the majority of the denouement was no surprise to me. A Big Misunderstanding separates Charlotte and Michael one that could have been resolved if one character hadn't jumped to conclusions. Some of the dialogue borders on overly melodramatic, and would seem at home on your favorite TV soap opera.

But if you don't mind these things, you can appreciate the solid writing and character development that occurs as Michael redefines his role in the Mondragon family, and Charlotte learns that she is worthy of love no matter how she looks. The 400 page novel flew by quickly for me and I enjoyed the experience. Fans of high drama will likely feel the same way.

--Susan Scribner


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