Name & Address Withheld
by Jane Sigaloff
(Red Dress Ink, $12.95, PG) ISBN 0-373-25022-3
Here’s a direct quote from the Red Dress Ink website: “We launched Red Dress Ink™ to provide women with unique and irreverent stories that reflect the lifestyles of today's single women. Red Dress Ink authors keep their writing lively and lighthearted.” Unfortunately, the adjectives that comes to mind after reading the line’s December release, Name & Address Withheld, are not unique, irreverent, lively and lighthearted. How about distastefull and excruciating? Burdened by amateurish writing and an unpleasant plot, Jane Sigaloff’s debut novel does nothing to counteract my already low opinion of Harlequin’s attempt to reach a younger audience.

Lizzie Ford, successful “agony aunt” both in print and on the radio, is reluctant to attend her office Christmas party. But after encouragement from her smart-mouthed flatmate (is there any other kind of friend in these novels?), she shows up, drinks a little too much, and meets a very promising man, Matt Baker, who rescues her from the leering attention of an obnoxious disc-jockey. Several quick dates later, Lizzie and Matt are both infatuated. While Lizzie starts to picture a future together, Matt worries about the present. You see, Matt has neglected to tell Lizzie that he is married.

Matt finds ways to rationalize his involvement; his marriage is just about over, because his wife Rachel constantly ignores him in her quest to become a successful public relations executive. And they were never really in love, they just got married because all of their other friends were pairing off at the time. Now that he has found Lizzie, he promises himself he will tell Rachel that he wants out. Except somehow he never quite finds the right time, until it’s too late. Once Lizzie finds out that she is a mistress, she breaks it off immediately. But can she resist Matt’s persistent attention? Can there be a happy ending?

The more important question is, why should I care? I sense that at some level the author is trying to candidly depict how adultery can happen to even the most decent, well-meaning individuals. Unfortunately, she fails miserably. What emerges instead is a painful portrait of three unhappy people who are caught in a no-win situation. Matt comes off the worst of the three main characters by far. He excuses his infidelity to Rachel and his continued lies to Lizzie by telling himself that “being fair hasn’t really worked so far.” There’s no compelling reason for him to stay in his marriage once he meets his alleged soul mate - no kids, no wife with a life-threatening disease - but he lets inertia take over until he has no choice.

Rachel is portrayed as self-centered and ambitious, but she’s not totally unsympathetic. She’s not a horrible person, just not the right one for Matt. But towards the end of the book the author, perhaps worried that The Wife is starting to look a little too sympathetic at the expense of The Other Woman, throws in a previously unsuspected addiction that negates most of Rachel’s sympathy vote. I guess she just couldn’t stand the ambiguity.

Poor Lizzie deserves better than the triangle she finds herself in, but she’s not an interesting enough character to command the reader’s sympathy. The secret of her popularity as an advice columnist is hard to fathom because she fails to impart any wisdom that rises above platitudes.

If the novel’s writing was stronger, the plot would be more palatable, but the author engages in egregious head-hopping. Awkward point of view switches occur almost every paragraph. The dialogue between Lizzie and Matt is self-conscious and stilted, which further weakens the plot. Adultery could be understood, perhaps even forgiven, if the reader felt that the two characters shared a passionate, undeniable bond. But instead, all we have to go on is that they both like the same type of movies - hardly a compelling reason to break one of the basic commandments.

By the time I finished Name & Address Withheld, I had a queasy feeling in my stomach. That might have been the result of too much Thanksgiving dinner, but it was more likely the result of reading a poorly-written book about a very unpleasant subject. I’d withhold your money from this book, even if you are a Red Dress Ink fan.

--Susan Scribner

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