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A Bachelor Falls

IF Wishes Were...Weddings
by Karen Toller Whittenburg
(Harl. American #745, $3.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-16745-8
This book is the second in the "Three Coins in a Fountain trilogy," about three women who meet in Rome after pursuing the same Italian airline pilot, only to discover that three – plus his Italian honey – are four too many. The three Americans, after bonding over cabernet and fantasy revenge, decide to visit the famous Trevi Fountain where they toss their coins and hope for better luck in the future.

Libby Ann Waldron is an unemployed preschool teacher from the small town of Beauregarde, Texas. As the only female offspring in three generations of Waldrons, her life has been ruled by intrusive, if well-intentioned, relatives. Hungering for adventure, and desperate to escape the attentions of Jason Joe Johnston, her home-town beau, 27-year-old Libby read more than she should have into the attentions of Nick Carlucci, international pilot and playboy.

After the humiliating encounter with Nick's other conquests, and their subsequent decision to join forces in rejecting Nick in particular and men in general, Libby finds herself stranded in the Rome airport, trying to get a flight back to America. International negotiator and single dad Ethan Redwine literally stumbles over Libby in his frantic efforts to get his two small children and himself on the earliest flight to New York. After a truly funny scene involving Libby's efforts to help 4 year old Sallie negotiate the airport bathroom guarded by a lira-demanding porter, Ethan offers to pay for Libby's flight if she will return with them to New York.

Their arrangement quickly develops into a modern version of a marriage of convenience. Although Ethan's intention is to manipulate Libby into becoming a short-term nanny for his children – his experiences with his ex-wife having soured him on a more personal arrangement – he is naturally attracted to Libby's perky, wholesome good looks and down home charm. Libby, who is also determined not to repeat previous mistakes, can't resist him or his children. When Jason Joe pursues her to New York and tries to carry her like a football back to Beauregarde, Ethan heroically claims to be her fiancι.

Like so many categories, this book is very professionally written, and includes some scenes – like the wine-soaked revenge-fest in Rome with the three disillusioned girlfriends, and the airport bathroom farce – that are truly funny. Unfortunately, in spite of clever contemporary details and a modern setting, neither this plot nor these characters ring true for the 90s.

Libby Ann is so naive and feckless at 27 as to be nearly Too Stupid to Live. Even if she were 18 she would be almost Too Stupid to Read About. Ethan is a collection of politically correct qualities – including adopted children from different cultural and racial backgrounds – whose response to the bizarre Jason Joe is strangely enabling. Jason Joe's pursuit, while intended (I think) to be comical, feels more like stalking; instead of pretending to be her fiancι in order to deter him, Ethan should have called the police.

Libby's rapport with the children is sweet, intelligent and convincing, and would have made a nice basis for a character whose wisdom about families and relationships makes her more than a match for a more economically successful and worldly man, if she was not so completely in thrall to her own cheerfully enmeshed family. Although she seems to be attracted to Ethan, her inability to withstand her family and Jason Joe appear to influence her actions more than any feeling for Ethan. Her end-of-the-book declaration of independence is too abrupt to be convincing; she is never shown as being capable of the kind of self-possessed assertiveness such an action would require.

It seemed preposterous to me that Libby would be so unable to resist her family, and that she could live happily ever after with a man who, for most of the book, tries to exploit that quality for his own benefit. His last-minute realization that Libby needs to be given genuine choices and the space in which to make them is not satisfying – especially when what she chooses is exactly what he – and everyone else – wanted all along.

Perhaps most tellingly, the major tension in this book occurs, not between Libby and Ethan, but between Libby and her family. This is less a story about two adults growing through their relationship with each other, than a story about a little girl trying to grow up by going away. The author tries to show that Libby has to come to terms with her family before she can really be free to marry Ethan, and she supplies the plot points to produce that result. But the emotional emphasis is on the family drama, not the romance, and Libby's inept handling of her own family doesn't give the reader confidence that her relationship with Ethan and his children will really be good for her. Instead of rejoicing in this couple's happiness, I found myself hoping they knew a good therapist...

--Bev Hill

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