Plum Girl by Jill Winters
(Onyx, $6.50, R) ISBN 0-451-41048-3
Plum Girl hits plenty of high notes in this story of a modern New Yorker juggling a sort-of career, two men, and a murder. It would be easy to compare it to the works of Jennifer Crusie and Janet Evanovich, but Jill Winters has her own unique voice, and this story showcases it beautifully. Unfortunately the plot is a recipe that never quite jells.

Lonnie Kelley has several master’s degrees in fairly esoteric subjects like Feminist Theory, none of which have translated into an actual job. Ergo, Lonnie is supporting herself by temping for the law firm of Twit and Bell. In her off-hours, Lonnie shares a studio apartment with her sister, Peach, and has a long-distance dating relationship with a stand-up comic named Terry. It’s a platonic relationship, and Lonnie is rather ambivalent about it. To be honest, the guy who really sends her into a sweat is Dominick Carter, the hunky computer nerd who works several floors down. They knew each other briefly in college, but he always seems so cool and controlled that Lonnie can’t imagine he’d be interested in her. Dominick could have his pick of women. Why would he pick a barely-employed, slightly zaftig nobody like her?

If only she knew. Dominick’s fantasies about Lonnie are every bit as hot as Lonnie’s are about him. But she runs whenever he tries to get a bit closer. Guess she isn’t interested, he thinks.

Lonnie and Dominick finally make cautious contact, which heats up quickly. Then, at a company party, Lonnie and Dominick stumble over the dead body of Lunther Bell, one of the firm’s partners. (What kind of name is “Lunther, anyway? I kept thinking it was “Luther” completely misspelled for the entire book.) This interruption to their coatroom tryst is unnerving, to say the least. Who killed Lunther? It must be someone at the firm.

Lonnie is off on a mission to uncover the killer. It was about this point in the book that I started wanting to flip ahead. This murder subplot never really got going, and divided the book into two distinct parts: one, a hot romance between Lonnie and Dominick (and what will she do about her neurotic comedian?) and two, a bland whodunit that basically requires Lonnie to interview nearly everyone at the firm: the bitchy girlfriend, the efficient lawyer who’s a tad suspicious, the partner, etc.

Romantic suspense works best when the romance and the suspense are intertwined. Dominick doesn’t step in to become a part of the murder until the end of the book, so what the reader gets is Lonnie running back and forth between these two parts of her life. It’s too fragmented to work well.

Too bad, because Lonnie and Dominick really know how to heat up the pages. If this romance had been longer and a bit more developed, this very well might have earned Plum Girl a five-heart rating. Lonnie’s characterization is great - she’s smart, funny, and has more than a touch of insecurity at not looking like the media ideal of perfection. When she throws her reservations to the wind and tells Dominick to get over to her apartment, now, readers are in for a memorable scene. As for Dominick, he thinks Lonnie is the hottest thing on two feet and doesn’t hesitate to let her know, once he has the green light to do so. Every woman’s dream.

Jill Winters understands situational humor and she uses it here to great effect. Lonnie can crack wise, but she’s no dimwit, and the funny sequences are more due to the situations in which she finds herself. It’s refreshing to read a story where the heroine’s intelligence isn’t sacrificed in order to try and get a smile out of the reader. No sitcom-style stuff here. Lonnie’s life is humorous enough without it, and the humor is natural.

Like any good romance, the secondary characters actually have something to do, at least in the case of Lonnie’s family. Her matchmaking mother keeps trying to set her up with a good catch, which leads to a disastrous date - and a breakthrough with Dominick. Peach is the sensible, clear-eyed one of the two, and when it looks like Dominick and Lonnie are going to stumble over their pride and mess everything up, Peach steps in to set things right. I hope she’s a future heroine in another Winters book.

Plum Girl is a vivid debut from an author with a natural voice for humorous romance. Let’s hope Jill Winters has a whole slew of story ideas, and that she’ll let her talent for scripting a good love story take center stage next time.

--Cathy Sova

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