As Long As She Needs Me
by Nicholas Weinstock
(Harper Collins/Cliff Street Books, $22, G) ISBN 0-06-019824-9
***
There's a fine line between good writing and overblown writing, and debut novelist Nicholas Weinstock comes dangerously close to crossing it. Weinstock's prose occasionally screams, "Look! I finally get the chance to use my English degree!" But despite its frequent forays into literary self-consciousness, As Long as She Needs Me is an entertaining story.

Oscar Campbell is an editorial assistant to the Boss From Hell, Dawn, CEO of Dawn Books. Ten years after graduating from college with an English degree and a determination to help foster great literature, Oscar is reduced to running Dawn's errands and screening her phone calls. He's damned good at making Dawn look good, but his latest assignment has him stumped. Dawn is getting married to literary agent Gordon Fox (who proposed over speakerphone), and she demands that Oscar plan the whole event, from invitations to honeymoon. As your typical clueless guy, Oscar knows nothing about weddings. Fortunately, when he attends the wedding of a college roommate, he meets Lauren LaRose, whose weekly column, "Aisle of White" details interesting weddings across the country.

Oscar and Lauren hit it off immediately, and both sense that they could develop something special. Unfortunately, Oscar must keep Dawn's upcoming nuptials top secret, so he lets Lauren believe that the wedding he is seeking advice on is his own. But years of chafing under Dawn's dictatorship, along with the growing conviction that fiancÚ Gordon is more Hound than Fox, cause Oscar to wonder if it's time to break free and make a new start - professionally and romantically.

As Long as She Needs Me is a lot of fun as long as it sticks to the business of gently satirizing the frequently bizarre wedding industry. Lauren's columns describe unusual weddings that take place in observatories, near bungee-jumping canyons, and under airplane hangars. Oscar is totally overwhelmed by snooty New York florists and hotel sales personnel. He knows that the focus should be on the marriage, not just the wedding day, but as Oscar muses, In an earthly existence marked by unpredictable births and unforeseeable deaths, it's the one such momentous event that can be calibrated to the minute, to the dollar, to the endless aggravation of the person in charge.

Did that sentence work for you? Or did you find it a bit pretentious? As I mentioned, Weinstock's writing style occasionally suffers from literary bloating, as if he's been waiting all his life to use these metaphors and images. I almost didn't make it past page 4, when I became temporarily entangled in this paragraph:

As a college English major - scanner of verse, skimmer of classics - he had vowed to aid in the creation of works of art while his fellow graduates manufactured meaningless dividends and portfolios. Underpaid by the company and overwhelmed by the mystique, he had set out to toil in the diamond mind of literature: to unearth treasures and hand them over, to limp home empty-handed but lit and warmed by their glow.

If you negotiate Weinstock's writing style, you'll discover that Oscar and Lauren's alleged romance doesn't work, primarily because the couple never really get a chance to be a couple. Their interactions are limited, and Lauren virtually disappears for most of the book's second half. Also, there's nothing like a Big Misunderstanding to annoy loyal romance readers. Lauren thinks Oscar is getting married, but Oscar is afraid to tell her the truth because he's sworn to secrecy by Dawn about the true target of the wedding planning. He believes he's in love with Lauren (based on two brief encounters and a handful of phone calls), but won't trust her with the truth. So the happily-ever-after, although delivered with panache, doesn't resonate.

As a former editorial assistant, Weinstock knows the publishing biz, and he doesn't hesitate to cast aspersions on authors, editors and agents. I won't even mention the stereotyped, insulting portrayal of the one romance novelist represented by Dawn Books. I'll just say that someone must tell me where to order the feather boas that all romance writers allegedly wear, as well as the heavy perfume and overdone makeup.

At a brief 245 pages, As Long As She Needs Me is a pleasant afternoon's diversion, as long as you're happy with gentle satire, occasional wordiness and a hint of romance.

--Susan Scribner


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