It's Like That
by Cheryl Robinson
(NAL, $13.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-21746-2
***
I read romances for their entertainment value, but I'm not against the occasional real life issue creeping in. With women's literature, I almost expect it as long as it neither overwhelms my peace of mind nor detracts from the flow of the story. It's Like That fails on both these counts.

The novel picks up shortly after Cheryl Robinson's first book, If It Ain't One Thing, and explores the difficult task of making a relationship work after the initial infatuation has worn out. Winona and Porter have decided to commit to each other, but have vowed to remain celibate for forty days while they work their way together through The Purpose Driven Life, a self-help guide. Porter doesn't like the arrangement, but Winona needs it to decide whether she really wants to tie the knot. It's not only the ten-years difference between them that is holding her back. It's the fact that she's HIV positive and he's not. Porter doesn't doubt that she's the One, but that doesn't mean it's easy for him to remain faithful and especially not when she's uninterested in sex.

As they struggle with the ups and downs of their relationship, both Winona and Porter have to confront a host of other problems. He must decide whether he wants to move from Detroit to California and accept a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be the drummer for a major singer. He also needs to come to terms with depressing news about his family that may rekindle old wounds. As Winona tries to deal with her children's adolescent rebellion and to determine whether she should tell them about her health, she hears unsettling information about her father and doesn't know how to respond.

Clearly, there is a lot happening in Winona's and Porter's lives. Their limited success at grappling with the never- ending cycle of problems renders them complex and plausible characters. Regrettably, however, these problems don't always blend smoothly to form a seamless story. Instead of contributing a realistic touch, they made me feel as if Robinson were throwing one difficulty after another to keep the plot going. Yes, life is complicated, but novels particularly commercial ones require much more coherence to make sense of the characters' dilemmas. An occasional touch of humor or some light-hearted banter might have helped. Sure, some of the issues are pretty heavy, but a quick comparison with Pearl Cleage's What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, which deals with many similar topics, would reveal that good Fiction even of the commercial variety doesn't have to sacrifice laughter and structure to deal with depressing social concerns.

Some of the dark overtones and the lack of coherence could have been avoided by highlighting the positive aspects of Porter's and Winona's relationship. Unfortunately, they rarely turn to each other for help with their problems. With one exception, they continue to live separately. It wasn't long before I began to wonder why they are trying so hard to stay together when everything keeps them apart. Worse, Porter's on-going flirtations had me questioning his ability to remain faithful in the long run. Winona, too, is interested in another man, one who, quite frankly, seems much better suited to her.

Despite or perhaps because of its realistic characters, its honest and frank approach and its eloquent prose, I shut It's Like That thinking that in the long run there was no happy-ever-after in store for Porter and Winona, at least not together. Surely that's no way to conclude a romance, even one of the more serious variety.

--Mary Benn


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