A Place to Call Home by Deborah Smith
(Bantam, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-553-10334-2
Dear contemporary romance fans, please make your way to your local library or book rental outlet as soon as humanly possible and get a copy of A Place to Call Home. While I'd never advise you to shell out the full hardcover price, I'd strongly encourage you to find a way to read this book, somehow. It's the best contemporary I've read in years and it's going straight to my very selective keeper shelf. Deborah Smith has hit her stride and transcended all of her previous novels.

Claire Maloney is the pampered youngest daughter of one of the two leading families in Dunderry, Georgia. Her mother is a Delaney, the other prominent dynasty. Somehow or other, Claire is related to just about every individual in the town. She knows who she is and is secure with her place in the town.

Roan Sullivan, on the other hand, is the son of the town drunkard. He has been abused and neglected but has somehow managed to maintain a core of goodness, despite the dirty exterior. Claire and Roan first cross paths when she is five and he is ten, during the St. Patrick's Day parade. Dressed as a leprechaun but looking like "an unhappy Irish Heidi," Claire watches her cousin steal some money and then conveniently blame Roan for the crime. When Claire defends him, she begins an unusual but lasting relationship that nourishes both children for the next five years. Claire stoically insists on Roan's basic goodness to her entire family, and Roan in turn protects Claire from assorted bullies. For a while it looks as if Roan will actually become part of Claire's family. Then suddenly he is gone, and Claire's life is empty.

Twenty years later Roan reappears just when Claire's personal and professional life is in crisis. The two must overcome shadows from the past and tough realities of the present before they can claim the love that was always meant for them. Roan must learn to trust Claire's well-intentioned but human family, and Claire must overcome her anger over his disappearance.

Deborah Smith is absolutely at the top of her craft. I have always thought her a talented writer, but the dark nature and the high body count of her earlier novels, including Miracle and Blue Willow, made it difficult to persevere through them. Here she brilliantly combines humor and pathos, so that I laughed out loud and dabbed away a tear in a single reading.

The writing is particularly sharp in the first half of the novel, which unfolds in first-person narrative during Claire's childhood. I had an image while reading it of Claire as a red-haired Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. I'd hate to spoil the story for anyone, but when young Claire gets a hold of her dad's Mickey Spillane and Louis L'Amour novels and decides to write a poem about her beloved Roan using their vernacular, the results are hysterically funny. Be forewarned that the childhood flashback does fill up half of the novel. To me that just provided a full rationale for why these two people truly belonged together, but readers interested in pure adult romance might be alienated.

Smith sprinkles the novel with Maloney and Delaney family stories and personalities. While sometimes the names became a little confusing, the family history adds to the story's unique Southern flavor. The most memorable secondary characters are the two "Old Grannies," one a cultured British maternal grandmother and the other a down-home no-nonsense paternal great-grandmother. Needless to say, the two hate each other and live to make each other miserable. Their bickering is entertaining, and the one fact they agree upon -- Roan's humanity -- is stronger because it is arrived at from such opposing viewpoints. I also appreciated the characters of Claire's parents, two mature people deeply in love with each other who try to do the right thing by Roan but whose good intentions end up going awry.

The second half of the novel didn't seem as extraordinary to me, but it still was a powerful story. When Roan reveals the reason behind his disappearance and twenty-year silence it makes his character even stronger and more admirable. The happily-ever-after is appropriately humorous and tender.

I absolutely did not want this book to end, and found myself reading slower and slower the closer I came to its conclusion. Borrow A Place to Call Home, or mark your calendars for its paperback release next year, but read it, please. It's magical.

--Susan Scribner

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