Book Review : A Cherished Fantasy, Lacking in Logic

Keeping Warm by Mary Gardner (Atheneum: $17.95)

Mary Gardner's first novel, "Keeping Warm," deals with such a fundamental American female fantasy that it's astonishing nobody's written this book before.

The fantasy goes roughly like this: Through some odd happenstance, your favorite recording artist enters your life and sets about making you his. He serenades you with the songs you always imagined him singing directly to you. Whatever sex occurs is sensational, and it's always precisely your preference, be it handholding on a moonlit seaside walk or the sort of activities to which expensive cellophane-wrapped magazines are devoted. He sees in you what he could never find in his glittering fast-lane life. Etc. Etc.

This fantasy crosses all barriers of age, socioeconomic background and race. The singer might be Sinatra or Jagger or Iglesias or Pavarotti or Springsteen or Kristofferson or Prince or Michael Jackson, or perhaps a more obscure personage who can really relate to you.

In "Keeping Warm," the fantasy comes true for Kay Lombard, a college English teacher in Fargo, N. D. Kay, a widowed young mother of two, knows her Victorian poets as well as the next freshman comp teacher, and she has her eye on a tenure track. But she indulges a secret passion for country-western music, a taste her children deride and her colleagues either don't understand or don't know about. In particular, she feels an affinity for the music of Billy Calloway, a Texas C&W; singer-songwriter.

The Dream Comes True

Through a barely believable series of too-cute events, Kay and Billy connect at his concert in St. Paul, Minn. Billy catches a ride back to Fargo with Kay and the two of them go through a chaotic several days together. Billy, a hard-bitten hombre in the Waylon mode, turns out to be a kind but impetuous guy who gets along fine with Kay's kids and acts only charmingly irrational, at least at first. Yep, Billy sings his songs to Kay, even listens to his own recordings at her side. He likes to cook. And the sex, of course, is terrific, even an initial coupling in the freezing muck of an Interstate drainage ditch on a blustery Minnesota Halloween.

"Keeping Warm" is nicely written and has a definite quiet charm. It also has a strong sense of place, though Fargo and its weather extremes are singularly unappealing.

What's missing, however, is any logical reason for Billy to be drawn to Kay, unless it's simply a sense of adventure and an empty week.

Because Kay is in a state of shock during virtually the entire episode with Billy, we don't get much insight from her, either. And so an experience that ought to leap off the pages just sort of lies there, like a thick blanket of North Dakota snow.

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