Dream a Little Dream
by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
(Avon, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-79447-0
*****
Susan Elizabeth Phillips' many fans will not be disappointed with her latest release, but they might be a bit surprised. Dream a Little Dream, while containing a welcome amount of Phillips' delightful humor, offers a much more serious story than her most recent books. Here we have a hero and heroine who have been sorely buffeted by life and who have to learn to live, trust and love again.

When Rachel Stone's dilapidated car gives up the ghost in front of the Pride of Carolina Drive-In in Salvation, North Carolina, her situation is desperate. She is homeless, friendless, out of money and stuck in a town whose citizens have every reason to hate her guts. Three years earlier her televangelist husband had fled Salvation only one step ahead of the law and the IRS. He had then died in a plane crash, leaving Rachel to bear the blame for his dishonest dealings.

The Reverend Snopes also left Rachel with a two year old son, whom she has been supporting by working two and three minimum wage jobs. But Edward became seriously ill and Rachel lost her jobs, her apartment and fears that she will lose her son. She has a reason for returning to Salvation, but she sure doesn't want to stay. But now she is trapped.

The owner of the drive-in is Gabe Bonner, brother of Cal Bonner of Nobody's Baby But Mine. Gabe had lost his beloved wife and son to a drunk driver two years earlier, and has pretty much given up on life. He has abandoned his career as a successful veterinarian and has returned to his hometown a mere shell of a man. He doesn't want Rachel around and he sure doesn't want her son near him -- too many painful memories. And he doesn't like his almost instant sexual attraction to this feisty woman; he thought that part of him had died with his wife.

But when the local sheriff gleefully tries to arrest Rachel for vagrancy, Gabe comes to her rescue. He offers her a job helping him get the drive-in ready to open, finds her a place to stay in his grandmother's old home, and arranges for daycare for her son.

Nobody in Salvation is real pleased about Gabe's sponsorship of "the widow Snopes." His minister brother Ethan finds it hard to practice Christian charity toward a woman whom he believes (wrongly, but understandably) cheerfully participated in her husband's perversion of Christianity for monetary gain. Ethan is even less pleased when Rachel befriends his mousy church secretary, Kristy, who has been his devoted if overlooked helpmeet for eight years. When Kristy sheds her cocoon and emerges as a butterfly, Ethan is completely bewildered and now has one more reason to dislike Rachel.

Phillips actually provides the reader with two romances. Her deft way with character development is nowhere more delightfully apparent than in her treatment of a confused Ethan's gradual awakening to the new and real Kristy.

But Rachel and Gabe are the central characters in Dream a Little Dream, and theirs is a more problematic relationship. Rachel puts on a brave front and uses her quick wit readily, but she is at heart fearful and vulnerable. Gabe finds himself caring about someone for the first time in years, but he is afraid of caring, afraid of being unfaithful to his lost loved ones.

As an aside, may I say that I was impressed with Phillips' handling of religion in Dream a Little Dream. Ethan is a very human minister and his doubts about the validity of his call are dealt with realistically and sympathetically. Rachel has, not surprisingly, lost her faith in God, at least God as He was preached by her husband. Her rediscovery of a loving God is a very moving moment in a book filled with moving moments.

Dream a Little Dream made me laugh and it made me cry. And it left me completely satisfied. Susan Elizabeth Phillips' writes contemporary romances with a unique and compelling voice. This book will only add to her growing reputation as one of the best in the business.

--Jean Mason

We recently caught up with Susan and asked her a few questions about her books and her future projects!


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