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A Place to Call Home

When Venus Fell by Deborah Smith
(Bantam, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-553-11143-4
I cried when I finished this book. Not because it was sad, but because I felt like I was closing the door on an extraordinary experience, one that would not soon be replicated. This is the first time that I have given an author 5 heart ratings for two successive books. I'm not a pushover; Deborah Smith truly deserves the acclaim.

Venus Arinelli has an unusual heritage and a tragic past. Her father Max was half Japanese and half Italian, and totally scornful of the American government that held him and his mother in an internment camp during World War II. Venus' mother Sherry was a half-Swedish singer who died when Venus was six years old. Her main legacy to Venus and her younger sister Ella was a series of stories about the breathtaking Cameron Hall in eastern Tennessee where Max and Sherry impulsively got married. During their short honeymoon visit, the rootless Arinellis formed a strong bond with the dynastic Cameron family that owned the inn, particularly Gib Cameron, a 5-year old boy who had just lost his own parents. For a while Venus and Gib exchanged birthday cards and letters, and Venus decided she was in love with this boy she had never met.

After her mother's death, Venus was raised by her increasingly bitter father. With musical gifts from both parents, Venus was a child prodigy at the piano. But her promising career was cut short when Max was accused of involvement in anti-American terrorism. Disgraced, he died in jail and Venus and Ella went into hiding. For ten years they have eked out a vagabond's existence as bar musicians. Then out of nowhere a familiar name reappears. Gib Cameron emerges from the past to find the Arinelli sisters and convince them to visit the Cameron home in Tennessee. The inn has been empty since a family tragedy, and Gib's Aunt Olivia is convinced that a reunion between Arinellis and Camerons is the good luck token that will revitalize Cameron Hall.

Since her parents' deaths, Venus has learned to trust and care for no one other than Ella. She is a brittle, smart-mouthed woman with attitude up to her eyeballs. As a cover-up, she has dyed her hair platinum blonde and added synthetic braids and cornrows for dramatic effect. But her crowning glory is her pierced navel. She has no interest in helping out the Camerons, especially when she learns that Gib is a former Secret Service agent - the exact type of person she was raised to despise. But Gib has an offer for Venus and Ella that they can't refuse. Their reluctantly agreed-upon two week trip to Tennessee has long-lasting repercussions for Arinellis and Camerons alike.

Believe it or not, that's just a synopsis of the first 35 pages. You'll have to discover the rest of this rich novel on your own. When Venus Fell includes wonderfully complex, colorful characters, including Aunt Olivia, the Cameron matriarch who hasn't spoken for 50 years, and the wonderfully named and totally irrational cook FeeMolly. Smith's Southern gothic humor is in full force, as she includes several entertaining detours into Cameron history, most of which involve the matter-of-fact kidnapping of outsiders to enrich the family's heritage. She also generates sparks aplenty between Venus and Gib, whose initial conversations include this gem:

"You must like being isolated up there in the mountains," I offered, by way of changing the subject. "You must stay busy."

He smiled a little. "Sure. Breeding with my first cousins and making moonshine takes all my time."

So much for my sympathy. He didn't want it. "First cousins? Why, I'm impressed you swam that far out in the family gene pool."

When Venus and Gib overcome their mutual distrust of each other's lifestyles, their love story is moving and hilarious. Straight-laced Gib's gesture of love to Venus is probably the most unusual and touching moment I've read in recent memory. The two truly bring out the best in each other as they discover a home and a purpose they have never known before.

Like Smith's previous novel, A Place to Call Home, this novel is written in first person narrative, but unlike its predecessor less space is devoted to childhood flashbacks. We get to know Venus "Vee" "Nellie" Arinelli in all of her prickly, adult glory and we rejoice in her triumph. Venus' past is so painful that the reader accepts her frequent hostile behavior but also recognizes the vulnerability beneath the veneer. Gib, who daily put his life on the line in his chosen profession but who is afraid to accept the mantle of Cameron family leadership, is a perfect match for her. They didn't grow up together, as Claire and Roan of APTCH did, but Venus' unfulfilled childhood fantasies about Gib are a poignant counterpoint to the lively adult relationship that develops.

Readers should be warned that, like some of Smith's earlier novels, there is one scene that includes the recounting of an extremely grisly demise. While it is a critical part of understanding Gib's character and motivation, it is not easy to read. Thankfully, along with her predilection for macabre deaths, Smith is also a graceful writer who can turn a simple phrase into something to be savored. I dog-eared my favorite, as Venus muses about "a certain thinning of the fabric between choice and fate."

While I would never tell readers to pay full dollar for a hardcover novel, I will say that Deborah Smith is now on my very short list (along with goddess Nora Roberts and new favorite Eileen Charbonneau) of authors whose hardcovers I would buy without question. Put this on top of your beach bag and lather on the sunscreen. I guarantee you won't want to move for hours while you devour this original, elegant and memorable novel.

--Susan Scribner

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