Flip-Flopped by Jill Smolinski
(St. Martinís, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-312-28514-0
****
Jill Smolinskiís debut novel is difficult to rate. On the one hand, Flip-Flopped benefits from its unusual setting, Hawaii, as well as its healthy appreciation for absurd humor, as Smolinskiís heroine repeatedly finds herself in uniquely disastrous situations. On the other hand, the author focuses on a bitter and disturbing custody battle, at the expense of devoting space to the heroineís promising new love life. But given the fact that several scenes elicited surprised and delighted giggles, Iím giving the book the benefit of the doubt and going with four hearts.

"After five years together, I was still in love with my husband. That would probably have been a good thing, except I was serving him divorce papers.Ē The opening sentence should have clued me in to the fact that Keely Baker-Kekuhi isnít quite ready for that second chance at love. A volcanologist and transplanted Midwesterner, Keely is assigned to monitor one of Hawaiiís most boring volcanoes. This isnít necessarily a bad thing, because the rest of her life is thoroughly chaotic. Her Hawaiian husband, Kam, is living with his girlfriend and threatening to move to Fiji along with Keelyís five-year-old son, Dante. The bargain-basement ex-hippie divorce lawyer that Keely has hired seems to be more interested in helping Keely get in touch with her feelings than helping her secure child support and custody.

In the midst of her troubles, Keelyís morale gets an unexpected lift when she meets Ian Gardiner, a charming and very British art dealer. Eager to make a good impression, Ian promises to introduce her to Davy Jones (of Hey, Hey, Weíre the Monkees fame), the object of Keelyís childhood crush. But Keely has to decide if her marriage is truly over before she can give Ian (or Davy) a fair chance.

The best thing about Flip-Flopped is its offbeat sense of humor, which is fueled by Smolinskiís creativity. I donít want to give away the best surprises - and there are many - but I will mention that Keelyís penchant for getting in trouble leads her to encounters with a pornographic origami exhibit and a 4-foot iguana named St. Ignatius. Keelyís childhood recollections about her Davy Jones fixation and her futile attempts to get advice from her psychologist mother are both comical and poignant. And anyone with kids will appreciate the challenge Keely faces when she hosts a birthday party for Dante and 15 of his friends - all by herself.

But at times the book is too dark and cynical for the average romance reader. Keely may claim to be in love with her soon-to-be-ex-husband, but itís difficult to see why such a smart woman is still attached to this emotionally barren, uncommunicative and unfaithful lunkhead, even if he is cute and sexy. The custody dispute degenerates into ugly accusations and at times I thought I had wandered into Sue Millerís heartbreaking The Good Mother instead of a chick lit/womenís fiction novel. All ends well, of course, but there are several scary moments. Instead of the custody subplot, I wanted to read more about the delightful Ian, who gets himself into a muddle of his own by trying too hard to win Keely over.

Smolinskiís knowledge of Hawaii seems to be based on personal experience, but one wonders at times if she likes the natives very much. She implies that they have little motivation to get anything accomplished and enjoy nothing more than telling stories while drinking to excess. If I were Hawaiian, I suspect Iíd be insulted by the stereotypes.

The novel is tightly structured, with an explosive climax that occurs when the most boring volcano on Hawaii decides to make its presence known just as Keely faces the final decision about her marriage. The gesture that she chooses to ask Ian for forgiveness - and his perfectly appropriate response - end the novel on a high note, leaving me eager to read more by this talented new author.

If you like your romances with a definite edge and donít mind the Kramer vs. Kramer flavoring, you will not be disappointed by Flip-Flopped. The cover endorsement from Good in Bed author Jennifer Weiner is on target - this novel is smart and engaging.

--Susan Scribner


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