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Alice at Heart by Deborah Smith
(BelleBooks, $14.95, PG) ISBN 0-9673035-2-4
In her first novel for BelleBooks, Deborah Smith creates an enthralling fantasy romance that is one part Alice Hoffman and one part Luanne Rice, but is unmistakably defined by Smith’s own unique Southern style. Start clicking that mouse button now and order Alice at Heart, either directly from the small publishing company Smith formed with several other Southern romance writers, or from your favorite on-line bookstore. You won’t want to miss one of the best books of 2002. From the charming Maxfield Parish cover painting to the appendix, it’s a near-perfect reading experience.

In her small Georgia mountain town, Alice Riley stands out as a classic ugly duckling. She even has webbed toes, as well as hair that grows faster than she can cut it, a fondness for oily tuna fish, and an ability to swim underwater for hours at a time. When she rescues a small child from drowning, her family and neighbors are suspicious instead of grateful. But just as Alice faces exile from her home, three strange and beautiful women appear. They claim to be Alice’s long-lost sisters, the Bonavendiers, and they implore Alice to join them at their coastal island mansion. The secret they impart, however, is just too much for “Odd Alice” to accept. She’s a mermaid - or, to be more technically correct, a Water Person.

Distrustful after years of being tormented because of her oddities, Alice is sure these women who claim to be her relatives are crazy. If she’s a mermaid, where is her tail? Confused and wary, she sends them away. But eventually Alice is drawn to the Bonavendiers’ island, where she learns the truth about herself from strong, honorable Lilith, sweet but slightly dotty Pearl and bitter, beautiful Mara. Alice slowly gains self-confidence as she rejoices in her discoveries, but she also learns to take the bitter with the sweet. The family history has had its share of tragedies, and her own conception was clouded in sadness. Of course, every good fantasy has its prince - in this case, Griffin Randolph, the charismatic man whom Alice first encounters through a psychic connection during her infamous underwater rescue. Griffin could be her true love, but he also could break her heart because of his hatred for Lilith and her sisters. To avoid more tragedy, Alice must use her newfound abilities to save these strange but wonderful people who claim to love her.

Alice at Heart is the best kind of fantasy - an alternate reality so well-conceived that it’s easy to imagine it being possible, that your own dreary, ordinary life could be replaced by a new one in which you could swim with dolphins, dress divinely, seduce men at will and have special telepathic powers. Deborah Smith goes overboard to make the mermaid world a real one, with Lilith Bonavendier offering historical and cultural background throughout the book, and a helpful appendix that provides more detail about the different clans of Water People. Smith combines traditional myths about mermaids with some fanciful additions of her own, and warns readers slyly that the Bonavendiers are mermaids who also happen to be Southern belles - “gilding the magnolia, as it were.” In other words, these women are spoiled, beautiful and strong - a force to be reckoned with.

Smith’s lyrical, spellbinding prose is enriched by characters who are both larger than life and yet very familiar in their human frailties. Alice’s transformation from downtrodden outcast to proud mermaid is joyous and poignant. All of the three sisters have lessons to teach Alice (some impart them with more grace than others) and the male characters, who pale slightly in comparison to the Bonavendiers, are both heroic and tragic. I wish the narrative relied a little bit less on the Big Secret, but there are reasons why neither Alice nor Griffin are ready to learn the truth about their respective parents until they are at peace with who they are, separately and together.

The book’s 300 pages, comprised of Alice’s first person narrative and third person point of view from Lilith and Griffin, fly by quickly. I could have easily read twice as many pages about these fascinating characters. The good news is that Alice at Heart is only Book One of Smith’s Waterlilies Series. I hope she’s hard at work on Book Two because I can’t wait to return to this graceful, lovely fantasy world.

--Susan Scribner

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