The Bargain

Captured Hearts

Faery Magic

One Perfect Rose

The Rake

River of Fire

Shattered Rainbows

The Wild Child

The Burning Point
by Mary Jo Putney
(Berkley, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-425-17428-X
Trust Mary Jo Putney to never do anything by halves. The successful Regency and historical romance novelist has written her first contemporary, and she definitely doesn't play it safe. She tackles the issue of domestic violence head-on. The result is The Burning Point, a fascinating, controversial story that's sure to generate plenty of discussion.

Kate Corsi has spent the past ten years in San Francisco, far from her former home in Baltimore where both her career dreams and her marriage ended. But when her father dies suddenly, she realizes that she will have to face her demons. Sam Corsi's unusual will stipulates that Kate must live with her ex-husband, Patrick Donovan, for one year; otherwise, Phoenix Demolition, the innovative explosive demolition business her father founded, will be sold to a competitor.

Traditional, Italian Sam Corsi had always denied Kate her wish to be a part of PDI, choosing instead to train her husband as his heir apparent. Kate finally has a chance to make an important contribution to the exciting, precise and dangerous business, but only if she can work and live alongside Donovan. And she has every good reason to avoid him like the plague.

Kate and Donovan's short-lived marriage began and ended explosively. When they met, Kate was a debutante, while Donovan was working as a parking valet and attending college part-time to move beyond his blue-collar East Baltimore roots. Donovan always worried that Kate would one day realize that she had married beneath herself, and his short temper and jealousy led to violent episodes. Donovan was always full of remorse, and Kate partially blamed herself - so the cycle continued, until Kate fled after a final, shattering confrontation. But ten years and professional help have changed Donovan for good. Can he help Kate move past her anger so she can finally get on with her life? Is there a chance that he could be part of her future? And how will they keep PDI flourishing, now that its founder has perished and its reputation is at stake?

Putney has always excelled at stories of redemption. The Rake and the Reformer, one of my all-time favorite romances, portrays the hero's progression from dissolute alcoholic to loving, productive husband. But can she pull off a contemporary story with a hero whose behavior goes beyond morally reprehensible to criminal? After all, it's easier to excuse negative behavior in a given historical context. In a novel set in modern "enlightened" times, the same negative behavior is harder to rationalize. Putney convincingly reveals the factors in Donovan's past that contributed to his behavior. She adds in ten years of time and distance, during which Donovan works hard to control his temper and learn new ways of handling his anger. But as a woman who has worked with both abused women and abused children, I hesitated to fully trust his transformation, even when Kate finally finds a way to forgive him.

There are other gray areas in The Burning Point that add to its complexity - and its controversy. Putney doesn't shy away from the fact that some of PDI's demolition activities have a negative impact on individuals. A public housing project is slated to be one of PDI's targets, leaving many low income families without homes. Donovan's defense that PDI didn't make the decision to close the project is met by protestors who compare his actions to Nazis who were "only following orders." Putney takes great pains to show that PDI's work also has a productive side, but again it's up to the reader to decide whether blowing things up is an admirable or dishonorable profession.

Although Putney is a veteran author, the novel does reflect her inexperience in the contemporary genre. The suspense element, involving the mystery behind Sam Corsi's death, seems tacked on after all of the intense interpersonal dynamics between Kate and Donovan. The truth comes out of nowhere just to create a final, climactic scene. And Putney's formal dialogue, which worked well in historicals and Regencies, sometimes feels unnatural in a contemporary setting.

But it's refreshing to read a novel that features a multifaceted topic without easy answers. Many contemporary romance authors have incorporated domestic violence into their novels, but usually they feature a heroine who flees from her monster of an abusive husband, into the arms of a safe, perfect hero who spends 240 pages convincing the heroine that he would never hurt her. Putney takes a big chance by creating a flawed yet realistic hero who is also an abuser, and a heroine with some issues of her own who tolerates the abuse for several years.

I read The Burning Point in less than 24 hours, then went back and read it again to get a better handle about how I felt about it. I'm still not sure if the novel is a compelling piece of evidence that people can change for the better, or if it inadvertently romanticizes domestic violence. But I'm glad I read it, and I urge you to read it and decide for yourself.

Wow. Thanks for visiting the contemporary side, Ms. Putney. If you're going to present us with thought-provoking novels like this one, I hope you'll return again soon.

--Susan Scribner

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